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Five Element Ninjas(1982)
When a quintet of nasty ninjas hell-bent on world domination nearly massacres an entire clan, its lone survivor must take the path of revenge. He meets up with an old master well versed in the ways of the ninja. Now armed with secret knowledge and newfound friends, he must battle the awesome power of the Five Element Ninjas, who harness the powers of gold, wood, fire, water, and earth.
For more about Five Element Ninjas and the Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray release, see Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray Review published by Brian Orndorf on March 30, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Tien-chi Cheng, Tien Hsiang Lung, Meng Lo
Director: Chang Cheh
» See full cast & crew
Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray Review
Sometimes a vertical bamboo flute is just a vertical bamboo flute.
Reviewed by Brian Orndorf, March 30, 2012
I'll admit that my education on the legacy of the Shaw Brothers Studio is lacking, having only picked up bits and pieces of their legendary filmography from television airings, daredevil revival house screenings, and the ultimate homage to their efforts, Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" saga (John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China" also made an impact). Apparently, I need to introduce more Shaw Brothers into my moviegoing diet, with their 1981 effort, "Five Element Ninjas" (aka "Five Elements Ninjas" and "Chinese Super Ninjas"), a furious face blast of martial art choreography, blood-soaked violence, and marathon displays of poker-faced honor. A lovingly low-budget bruiser committed to the nuances of bodily harm and ancient weaponry, the feature is a total hoot, supplying superbly designed action and broad displays of anger. Considered by some to be one of the best Shaw Brothers creations in their extensive library, "Five Element Ninjas" certainly lives up to its reputation, bringing to the screen a fresh imagination for martial art battle scenarios and ultimate revenge, sold with a fist-first mentality that carries evenly throughout the production. It's raw, ridiculous, and addictive all the way.
In the wilds of China, the Martial Arts Alliance, a house of nobility and martial art purity, has been challenged by the nefarious Five Elements Formation, led by Kembuchi (Chan Wai-Man), a supreme master of a Japanese fight style known as Ninjitsu. Lured out into the open, the Martial Arts Alliance is largely decimated by a highly trained ninja force that uses the five elements (water, earth, fire, wood, and metal) to their great advantage. When another wave of ninja attacks take command of the Martial Arts Alliance compound, only one student, Xiao (Cheng Tien-chi), gets away, returning to a generous farmer who once imparted a crucial skill of rope escape that's served him well. With Kembuchi growing in power, aided by ninja temptress Junko (Chen Pei Hsi), Xiao prepares for revenge, soaking up his master's Ninjitsu training with a new brotherhood of enforcers, aiming to return to the Five Elements Formation with a preparedness strong enough to eradicate the crafty army, leading him to a final showdown with Kembuchi.
The gimmick of "Five Element Ninjas" is its alleged cultural authenticity. The opening titles list numerous historical books and teachings used as reference, promising not only a hyper-violent film teeming with electrifying action, but one supported by factual accuracy. Director Chang Cheh certainly makes a considerable effort to reinforce the pledge, listing the movie's weaponry when it debuts onscreen, sure to point out every last blade and blunt instrument of death. The inventory aesthetic creates an almost regal feel of display, asking the viewer to accept the semi-campy atmosphere of the picture as a museum field trip, reinforcing its historical precision while it executes all manner of stylized attacks, numerous acts of seppuku, and wide-ranging wirework, creating a fantastical assembly of action sequences. Sadly, I lack knowledge in the vast field of Chinese armament, forcing me to trust the production when it comes to visualizing all of these slices and dices. Of course, if there's any truth to "Five Element Ninjas," than ancient China was perhaps the most intense place on Earth to pick a fight. They had blades for every limb, steel assistance for every occasion. The feature gets an amazing amount of mileage out of its showroom atmosphere, introducing a varied arsenal to assist the heroes and villains with their crude plans of attack.
Forgoing the usual grind of introductions, "Five Element Ninjas" hits the ground running, thrusting viewers into the heat of battle, where these warriors initially square off against one another in a contest of skill, highlighting gifts with weapons and flexibility. Although character personalities are poorly established, their faces are offered primary focus by the director, solidifying aggressors and defenders through degrees of intense staring contests and martial arts swagger. Truthfully, "Five Element Ninjas" is structured almost as a fight card, with carefully portioned bouts of battle between the Martial Arts Alliance and the Five Elements Formation, a force of doom divided into clans, each using their naturalistic designation to fashion a merciless assault. There's the Copper Hats squad, who blind their foe with their reflective headgear; a fire tribe who employ smoke to stun their enemy; water ninjas assume command of a local stream; wood assassins disguise themselves as trees; and earth soldiers dig underground, launching horrifying spear attacks from below, which, in the film's strangest blast of gore, manage to untangle one protagonist's intestine, dragging sloppily along his leg as he continues to futilely defend himself. Yikes.
Chang Cheh does a thrilling job organizing the showdowns, exploiting the wrath of the Five Element Formation for every frame of surprise and oddity, slathering the screen with color and unflinching violence. It's an outrageous movie at times, generating a hypnotic graphic novel mood of set-bound war (in the world of the Shaw Brothers, the background sky always has visible corners and poorly applied wallpaper), with exceptional fight choreography kicking, punching, and slashing like crazy, displaying dizzying efforts of pure physicality from a gloriously trained group of actors. The production also plays cleverly with silence when dealing with the approach of the ninjas, taking everything out of the soundtrack to underline their mastery of stealthy attacks. In a feature of pronounced foley work (with telephone-book hits, batting-cage whooshes, and melon-smashing squishes), the quiet carries colossal tension.
Adding a sly sense of cheeky fun to the picture is the musical score, which often acts as a "Jaws" homage, carrying a deep string promise of incoming doom. At least I hope it's a tribute to the iconic score. Maybe the statute of limitations has run out already, but perhaps John Williams should contact his lawyers just to be safe. Valentine or rip-off, the music from "Five Element Ninjas" adds a thick, rousing layer of atmosphere to the effort.
Although the film is primarily a male-centric martial arts extravaganza, with a buffet of heaving chests and fluffy sideburns, "Five Element Ninjas" makes room for Junko and her feminine distractions. A member of the ninja team, Junko is utilized here as a sexual weapon, able to seduce her way in and out of danger, wickedly triggering a hapless sense of chivalry from the Martial Arts Alliance. The production also provides a little tease on the side, keeping the actress in a fishnet bodysuit for much of her screentime. Cruelly, the picture is remarkably chaste. When Junko slides into a warm bed and promises to play a little vertical bamboo flute for one of the heroes, she pulls out an actual vertical bamboo flute. The character adds a little spice to an already flavorful movie, offering a unique sense of danger for a squad hit by peculiarity from all sides.
Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray, Video Quality
The AVC encoded image (2.36:1 aspect ratio) presentation on "Five Element Ninjas" is unexpectedly clean, with limited print defects successfully suppressing the feature's true age. It's a fresh viewing experience, with the production's bright color palette successfully navigated on the BD, displaying rich runs of deep reds and "forest" greens, while the elemental warriors retain their intended boldness -- the Copper gang carries a blinding, stable sense of gold, making their scene an apt example of the image's stability. Details are satisfactory, excellent when dealing with intense close-ups of these committed faces, while set particulars are equally well served, revealing the lovable artificiality of the production. Gore zone nuances are also available for study, with numerous open wounds supplying a harrowing sense of cinematic danger. Shadow detail is revealing, good with distances and thick hair designs, while costuming is always available for inspection.
Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix is understandably on the harsh side, working with source elements that were never meant to convey nuance, only screaming frontal force. Dialogue exchanges hit a few shrill notes of drama, but remain in a comfortably thick realm of engagement, with looped conversations clear and alert. Sound effects are pleasingly pronounced, providing a thin but enjoyable arrangement of body blows, which enjoy winning repetition. Scoring carries itself well, nicely accentuating the action without intrusion, offering a deep feel for stringed instruments. It's not a dimensional or overly polished track, but a simplistically designed sonic experience that matches its theatrical intent well.
Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Five Element Ninjas Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Saving its might for the grand finale, "Five Element Ninjas" commences an orgy of violence for the last act, offering Xiao's design of revenge in all of its limb-removing glory. It's a ridiculously satisfying closer, observing such cartoonish might, yet it retains a brutal streak of fury, giving kung fu fans exactly what they've paid to see. I felt a little woozy when "Five Element Ninjas" concluded, overwhelmed with its accelerated idea of comeuppance and theatrical staging. While true Shaw Brothers admirers might have a different appreciation for the film, it made me a true believer, eager to carry on to the next splashy martial arts adventure.
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