Shaolin Challenges Ninja stars Gordon Liu Chia Hui in a thoughtful and beautifully executed work on the varieties and virtues of Chinese and Japanese martial arts. The directing was by the legendary Liu Chia Liang, plus along with Wilson Tong he was also in charge of the movie's choreography. It took HK $2,467,000 in a 12 week run which placed it between 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Five Venoms in terms of box office receipts.
It was in 1978 when Sammo and Jackie were doing what many consider to be their best works, yet many would also see it as a golden year for the more straight-laced Shaw Brothers productions. Gordon Liu had risen to the top of the pile with classics such as 36th Chamber, Challenge of the Masters and Executioners from Shaolin, all of which had also been graced with Liu Chia Liang's directorial flair. What also makes this movie important for me is the performance of Yasuaki Kurata; it is certainly a career defining role and helped pave a career of fighting Jackie and Sammo in the 80's.
Another reason that Shaolin Challenges Ninja is often cited is because Mizuno Yuko was cast as a dominant female character (Gordon Liu's wife), which went against the wishes of Mona Fong, who wanted to make sure she was the only lady with power in Shaw Brothers. This is why Liu Chia Liang was so essential to the development of Shaw Brothers, not only did he use strong female leads (see also Kara Hui in Invincible Pole Fighter and Legendary Weapons, an approach he never lost. e.g. Drunken Master 2 with Anita Mui) but he also moved away from the Chang Cheh inspired gore fests that were before him (see Boxer from Shantung). Infact, no one actually dies in Shaolin Challenges Ninja, which is very distinctive for Hong Kong cinema.
Tonfas for everyone!
"Hi, we're a bunch of very cool Japanese martial artists."
Samurai expert gets to work
Ah To (Gordon Liu) is married to Kuda (Mizuno Yuko) who comes over from Japan to be with her new husband. Unfortunately she practices her Japanese martial arts all day and ruins the back garden. Ah To starts to lecture her on the proven advantages of a less violent style, and this just serves to enrage Kuda even more and the rivalry between their various styles of martial arts grows. Kuda eventually returns to Japan and this makes Ah To determined to win her back.
His servant suggests writing a letter challenging her to a competition. Unfortunately Sanzo (Kurata), who seems to be an old flame, gets this letter and sees Ah To's challenge as one to the whole of Japan! He immediately takes a group of skilled warriors (including Samurai, Ninja, Judo and Karate experts) over to China to accept the challenge. The plan backfired a tiny bit, and Kurata sends one fighter every 24 hours to challenge Ah To. However, Ah To manages to eventually succeed and resolve the dispute with the Japanese, and Kuda certainly warms to him as the fights go on.!
The fighting in this film is of the highest order, it is mainly weapons combat but not exclusively. The first section involves Ah To and Kuda having a tonfa fight. However, this surpasses the other great tonfa fighters (Chan and Lo Lieh) in that Liu fights Chinese style with the larger single tonfa, against Kuda's two smaller tonfas. Similar clashes occur when Kuda takes all her Ninjitsu weapons into Ah To's gym (look for cameos from Simon Yuen, Wilson Tong and Lee Hoi San). These really are great fun to watch and do much credit for Yuko's weapons skills and she capably holds her own against Gordon Liu in both sword and spear encounters.
Drunken style cameo by Liu Chia-Liang
When Kurata arrives with his Japanese warriors we are first treated to a neat and flowing fight with a Samurai, plus Ah To gets into further trouble by defeating the Samurai then refusing to take his sword (the Samurai is so offended he tries to commit Hari-Kiri!). At this point the remainder of the movie is essentially non-stop fighting and it is truly delightful to watch. Next comes the Liu Chia Liang cameo as a drunken boxing beggar, from whom Ah To learns how to defeat subsequent opponents. It is pleasing how after Ah To defeats an opponent he always gets a mini cameo of the next fighter. Not only does this further excite the audience, but it lets Ah To contemplate which weapon to use. After winning a spear fight, arguably the best fight comes along. It is Japanese nunchuks AND tonfa vs. three section staff. This is spectacular (and cut from the UK VHS release) and is possibly the greatest scene in the movie. It is convincing and expertly choreographed, there is nothing to fault with this scene, with Ah To the eventual victor after robbing the Japanese fighter of his tonfa.
Does weapons fighting get any better? (Not on UK VHS)
He next grapples with the gigantic Hitoshi Ohmae, who is the bulky judo
expert. Ah To famously defeats him by taking off his top and covering
himself in oil (ingenious) to prevent him being grappled with. The fight
against the double Sai fighter is also exceptional and it involves a dexterous
and nimble martial artist who attempts to defeat Liu's twin butterfly
knives. There is more than can be mentioned here in the final climax with
Kurata, but a brief synopsis would include Ninjitsu weapons, swords, spears,
animal styles (including a superb crab style by Kurata) and many flying
darts. It all ends well with the Japanese respecting Ah To fighting skills
and Ah To accepting the Samurai's sword. A peaceful conclusion to a film
that is more interested in portraying some of the most elegant forms of
martial arts, rather than depicting the superiority of one style in a
bloody manner (see Fist of Fury).
This is the first Ground Zero disc I have reviewed and although I am delighted to see this movie uncut, I am also gutted it is so poorly presented and packaged. The picture is presented full frame and the sound is pretty crackly.The picture quality is very low and there have been little attempts to restore the print. This is a special shame as it is a lavish Shaw Brothers set. The extras include a 'dubious' biography for the stars and two bonus fights from other GZ titles.
A masterpiece, my personal Shaw Brothers favourite, and possibly Gordon Liu's, Kurata's and Liu Chia Liang's greatest works. I love the story, the way in which martial arts are depicted without the good guy / bad guy dichotomy, and the ending is wholly satisfying.
This is choreography and fighting of the very highest order and on few other occasions have Japanese martial arts been depicted so well by Chinese cinema. The downside is the disc, I will forever live in hope that one day this will be remastered and released widescreen, but until then I will keep on watching this budget version.
Fork vs. Knives: The Cutlery fight
Judo master finds Liu too slippery to handle
Kurata (right) shows off his crab style