Ninja In Ancient China (1993)
Produced, written & directed by: Chang Cheh
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The below may all feel like a letter of apology or me tip-toing around the fact that I find Chang Cheh's career trajectory weird. Perhaps an opinion that matters but possibly not, my perspective comes from a not at all lifelong devotion to the martial arts genre or the art as my first steps into Hong Kong cinema had to do with more modern esthetics. The (heroic) gangster movie. Of course if you're talking about John Woo who has openly voiced that his apprentice under the Shaw Brother's legend helped shape him, I can inject here too that the shaping in that regard is the BEST you should "take" from Chang Cheh. Immersing myself deeper to become a fan of action, drama or any genre he did, over the years the likes of The Magnificent Trio, Blood Brothers, Disciples Of Shao Lin and the youth drama Dead End from the legend (can't be a description worth overdoing) have shown and often reinforced the cinematic power of Chang Cheh. Firmly introducing the viable notion of a male hero but a vulnerable one in the case of Jimmy Wang Yu in One-Armed Swordsman, here you will still today easily find a director who deals in character successfully. Because speaking greatly of universal and modern themes such as alienation, the stretch of these character-based and also lazy/fun exercises (Four Riders, Duel of Fists for example) keeps me glued to the screen but there is a switch that happens with the great Chang during the 70s when he returned to Hong Kong after a stint in Taiwan.
Choosing to go literally operatic by using Peking Opera performers as possibly a way to make Shaw Brother's reclaim audiences Golden Harvest and their star players had claimed, a distinctly different style of action because of it and lack of the strong depth that was a showcase in his prior classics, of course a choice after you've depleted yourself on the market is still a choice you can't turn your back to as a viewer before you've even judged. But it's a judgment based on a personal opinion, an emotional response if you will that made undersigned not so much develop a hatred but generally feeling nothing after watching the likes of The Five Venoms and Flag Of Iron. Talky, plastic and despite that sounding rather offensive, it's all simply not my preference and it's continued on, both on a pre-conceived level in all honesty and after having experienced firsthand. So Shaw Brother's wound down in popularity the bigger the likes of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung became and Chang Cheh found himself working with government support in Mainland China partly. Ultimately flexing less creative muscles than before, among other things he gave the world the all star showcase (new and old) of Shanghai 13, the echo of Shaw Brother's glory past in the form of Hidden Hero and modern action/opera techniques plus a little bit of extreme gore in Slaughter In Xian. Eventually at the very tail end of his career after ups and downs financially, Ninja In Ancient China concluded his career. Ninjas you say...and by the way, have I over explained myself yet? I tend to do that.
But at any rate, I find it deeply interesting this often overlooked and not often written about Mainland period of Chang Cheh's life. Not because of one gleefully wanting to see the man fail but simply the need and desire to experience an unseen development. A rise and a fall is as important to embrace, just like darkness should never be turned away from. It's supposed to be explored in a way. Here in yet another ninja exploration as seen in the wildly beloved Five Element Ninja by Chang Cheh, it's more or less a re-thread of similar ideas readily available in that feature. And by populating the running time with the titular ninjas, you have yourself somewhat acceptance because Chang Cheh's knew to tap into yet another kind of emotional response...MINE! Plot is easy enough to not waste time in its own paragraph. As their Master Yu (Chen Er-Gang) is killed, his students want revenge...
With classic structure and style, Chang goes to work by educating audiences about the 5 elements of the ninja art: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth, all represented by a specific colour so no easy cloaking for our Wood in green then. In a fast and furious opening reel, techniques are demonstrated, some of which are very familiar (ninjas under water, under soil....that kind of a thing) and a fair positive feeling lies over Chang's low-budget creation. On a more deeper level, he continually references that Japan utilizes same techniques as presented here and if he's a firm believer the ninja is exclusively Chinese and therefore stolen is difficult to say but worth pondering.
Featuring a talky but more easily accessible story than what was presented in Hidden Hero for instance, our ninjas are merely trying to restore the world into a peaceful one but evil Generals wishing for dominance as always stand in the way. Patriotism painted in blood mostly but one interesting aspect to Tung Chi-Wa's (1*) General Suen-Chuk is the fact that he has a woman waiting (foolishly) for him to retire and become the everyday man. Way too deep into the power-hungry world obviously, all this takes place on numerous stages that look impressive but long way off Shaw Brother's smoothness so that makes Chang's players feel very much crudely pasted in. But deeper, old ideas are sound and of course Master Yu is advocating his students to use their techniques sparingly and not rush into impulsive behaviour. Even after his death, the students stay with the frame of mind that tactics needs to be used. Undercover tactics, deception and hence adhering to elements found in ninja history.
But history doesn't necessarily interest Chang Cheh (despite echoing written works and actual historic events, as you'll learn in the dvd commentary) as Ninja In Ancient China takes us on the action-ride more than anything. Sure, some canned romance and melodrama in his trademark gory surroundings are not thoughts that would ever escape Chang Cheh but from a viewer investment stand point, there's none for characters. Especially not when proceedings turn awfully talky and lacking spark compared to the opening. But for all its ropey execution in the action stakes (mainly talking choppy wirework and a general low-budget feel), Chang Cheh's acrobatic players respond well to the mix of grounded acrobatics as well as when the high flying techniques are in need to be flashed. Because flashy it is and overall a solid nature to the choreography manages to break through the crude frame to lead Ninja In Ancient China into the verdict of a fairly fun finish from a legend that could never make his past reputation vanish, even if you liked only part of his filmography. Thanks for the the moving images, Chang Cheh.
Greenfandvd presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, approximately (it varies a little throughout). Being a rare film, most of the print looks as good as can be with softness not being an overly apparent issue. Colours are for the most part fairly vivid and print damage light. At 3-4 points the quality drops a few notches into more darker and battered territory.
The Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounds clear throughout but for whatever reason, the audio jumps to the left channel for one minute around the 35-36 minute mark.
The imbedded Chinese/English subtitles chalks up a fair amount of grammar- and spelling errors during the 90 minutes but the translation can always be followed and the subs are rarely displayed against white backgrounds either.
A notable extras package (considering the film we're dealing with) starts with an audio commentary by Kung-fu film expert Nick Watkins. Having obviously prepared, some remarks are read out but the content of Nick's not very often screen specific commentary is thorough to the point that he invites new and old fans into the fact-attack. He goes through the connection with other ninja movies by filmmakers such as Robert Tai and Godfrey Ho, the Mainland history of Chang Cheh's filmmaking life (and the films), the real life historic events and Chang Cheh's style overall being present in his very last films. The most intriguing bits comes from quotes of the legend himself, saying that he didn't care much for accurate details in his films. A worthwhile and very solid track.
An image gallery (27 images) follows, presenting all its stills in a large format thankfully. Behind Dream Sword Taster you'll find a 2 minute, 36 second clip of their upcoming release of The Dream Sword. Presented in 1.85:1, Mandarin 2.0 sound and optional English subtitles, by the looks of it we're dealing with a dark, battered print but an undemanding, fun genre vehicle.
Look inside your dvd case and you'll find an excellent 4 page colour booklet featuring movie stills and a text piece by acknowledged expert Linn Hayes entitled "Fall From Grace: Chang Cheh after the Shaw Brothers". It's healthy in the way that it brings up a moviemaking life of the legend not widely known and several movies are touched upon that are not even in any online databases either. Terrific stuff. The Greenfan teaser trailer for Ninja In Ancient China does not appear but is available on their website www.greenfandvd.com
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) The acclaimed Peking Opera performer that became Chang Cheh's leading man and action director during his Mainland period. Tung later received international exposure for his role of Donut in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle.