Directed by: Joseph Lai
Written by: Godfrey Ho
Producers: Joseph Lai & Betty Chan
Starring: Richard Harrison, Dave Wheeler, Louis Roth, O Chun-Hung, Elsa Yeung, Eagle Lee, Sibelle Hu & Tattooer Ma
When the IFD formula at least in concept (and hopefully in execution) was at its best, was when Joseph Lai acquired something WILDLY different than what his ninja action crammed into the same picture was destined to be like. Cue Ninja Commandments, an epic tale out of Taiwan starring the combined forces of Richard Harrison, Louis Roth, Dave Wheeler, Elsa Yeung, and O Chun-Hung. Meaning we get a Taiwanese source movie, a highly tragic and melodramatic one called Ma! Don't Die on My Back (1981, Chen Jun-Quan 1*) and ninja intrigue doing its thing alongside the doomed, former ninja clan members in 1981. Equally amusing, hilarious, heartbreaking and distressing, it's a standout in the IFD catalogue because we CAN come to those very conclusions and it's a trippy ride to boot.
Rodney and Janet (O Chun-Hung and Elsa Yeung) have been banished from the ninja clan after breaking the ninja commandment stating you can't have sex before marriage and are about to over the course of 30-40 years suffer the consequences of not following the ninja commandments. Meanwhile over the course of 30-40 years too, the ageless ninjas Gordon (Richard Harrison) and Stuart (Dave Wheeler) want the position as ninja master of the Silver Ninja Empire (not even the Golden Ninja Empire this time, first sign of IFD mixing it up) after the head ninja (Louis Roth) steps down but the latter wants power badly to the point where he kills his master. Cue need for revenge by Gordon...
Once you’re into the IFD atmosphere, have fascination for the product crafted here (even if it isn’t or shouldn't be acclaimed craft), know their history with lead Richard Harrison, the opening to Ninja Commandments is hilarious as Richard is clearly stoned, asleep and embarrassed to be there and the dialogue manages to be awkward thanks to names chosen for our doomed lead characters. It’s my favourite moment out of any IFD movie and the schizophrenia keeps on building the more Joseph Lai showcases the extreme darkness and melodrama of Ma! Don't Die on My Back and the colourful, ageless ninjas supposedly in the same movie. It's a highly amusing and in its own way a genius move to even try and combine these contrasts. Why Lai succeeds lies in said coherency which is not a given for these movies.
The members of the ninja clan are all lacking in charisma, toughness, on-screen comfort but where there actually is such is via the more accomplished actor here Louis Roth who continually pops up to echo the wisdom of the ninja commandments as Rodney's and Janet's stories develop. And on comfort, Chen Jun-Quan's original production does get plenty of time to showcase its original structure despite being enveloped by the ninja action plot. Largely set in a rural town, the grit and dread evokes the right mood despite it leaning towards nihilistic mood almost. There's enthusiasm in the couple early but petty conflicts over gambling leads to Rodney being setup, thrown in jail and firmly disconnected from Elsa Yeung's Janet who goes on raising their son on her own. Elsa is truly the standout here, being worn by the task at hand and wearing an extremely grisly burn make-up that in an effective way furthers the distressing nature of Chan's original script as well. It's a good sign you can make a fair assumption of how Ma! Don't Die on My Back played out originally but as unfair as it is having it being broken up by the color of Richard Harrison's scenes, the trip that means contrasting moods is intoxicating for sure. Logically it does clash but it's highly intriguing how it was re-edited and re-imagined..
How did IFD deviate from their formula then? Well it's not revolutionary to change Golden to Silver Ninja Empire but it's good for once that IFD didn't re-use plotlines concerning secret formulas, the hunt for the Golden Ninja Empire statue and holy hell, there's even FEMALE ninjas in this one. Shows some forward thinking and inspiration when re-tooling the original, solid drama. As the son in Ma! Don't Die on My Back grows up (played as adult by Eagle Lee), the film feels a little more sporadically effective but the final reel push is effective and uncomfortable with an older, almost catatonic Elsa Yeung further showcasing her dedication to this tragedy. It all turns very big and highly amusing when it reaches its high point because we cut to our final ninja fight featuring decent showcase for the Chinese stuntmen in the suits. Much works in IFD's creation and much shines through in the source movie. Which means we got a good glimpse of both intentions on display here.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) Credit goes out to Jesus Pérez Molina and his blog Golden Ninja Warrior Chronicles for identifying the original movie.