As with a great deal of Hong Kong kung-fu flicks,you can’t really judge a book by it’s cover. Or in this case, a DVD by it’s title. Shaolin Challenges Ninja isn’t really about a group of Shaolin fighters fighting Ninja, as cool as that sounds. It is more of a film about the cultural differences within an arranged marriage, and how these differences can cause violent tension. In a few cases, leading to some of the best spousal abuse scenes ever seen in a Shaw Brothers flick. I know spousal abuse is nothing to joke about (all the time), but when you get the chance to see newlyweds going at it, Karate vs. Kung-Fu, bring on the trailer park jokes.
Ho Tao (Gordon Lui), Son of China, is forced into a marriage with Kuda, a Daughter of Japan. The movie starts with Ho Tao trying to figure out how to get out of this arrangement with a girl he only remembers as homely. Come to find out, after trying to play off sickness in the style of an unskilled 6th grade adolescent, Ho Tao’s future wife is actually a knock out and this makes him quite pleased. So he goes along with the wedding as planned.
In the standard made-for-a-WLVI-Sunday-audience way, the movie fast forwards past the scenes of passion that made Ho Tao wake up with a shit-eating grin. We find that in the beginning of the day Ho Tao and Kuda are very warm, even a bit lovey-dovey towards each other. However, by the time the sun goes down, shit has hit the fan in more ways than one. Ho Tao is not only thrown of by his wife’s refusal to adhere to chinese cultural honor displays, like the correct way to bow or eat. He is also stirred up by Kuda’s belief that Japanese martial arts are superior to those of the chinese, while Ho Tao himself knows that kung-fu is far superior to anything coming out of Japan. It is these opposing, yet shockingly similar viewpoints that pave the way for the rest of the movie.
From here on, Ho Tao goes on the prove that kung-fu is the superior art form to karate, judo, and ninjitsu, and this has nothing to do with the fact that he is obviously a better fighter. Kuda ends up fleeing back to Japan in shame and anger but not without getting a couple of lessons on chinese weapons and fighting styles. The dinner time food fight alone made this movie pure gold within the first 15 minutes.
While Kuda is in Japan, she receives a letter from Ho Tao while in the presence of her good friends/martial arts instructor/master ninja who just happens to have the hots for her. After seeing Kuda’s response to the letter, Ninjaman grabs the letter out of her hand and proceeds to read it. He finds that the letter is a juvenile attempt by Ho Tao to make Kuda return to China by insulting japanese culture and martial arts. This makes Ninjaman furious, and he goes on the assemble a team of Japan’s best warriors who then head to China for battle with Ho Tao over which culture is superior.
Shaolin Challenges Ninja is has some of the best fight choreography I have seen from a film from this era. The actors are well skilled and the director didn’t have to add in much flashy I candy to draw the crowd in. There is flashy, but this is a movie with ninjas. Ya gotta have smoke bombs and shurikens. Every style vs. style/weapon vs. weapon battle was well balanced, even though it has to be realized this is a Hong Kong movie so there is a bit of favoritism throughout.
And for those who crave the basics from a kung-fu movie, Shaolin Challenges Ninja is full of the standard stereotypes that make Hong Kong go round. Honor, vengeance, and a wise, old master who just knows what exactly to say at the right time. You even get to see a drunken master. Although the role was not Sam the Seed, everybody loves the jolly wino who kicks ass.
I also came to the realization while watching this movie that there is another, lesser talked about stereotype in the kung-fu movie: the sniveling servant. Why is the sniveling servant always the World’s Biggest Pussy and why does his master always keep him around, even though he is useless? And why does the sniveling servant always have the most annoying voice to do the dub over work? I’m pretty sure they are all dubbed by the same dude in every kung fu flick far and wide. I’m surprised more people don’t complain as like I do. You might use comedy element as a defense for this atrocious stereotype but this movie already has the drunken master, you don’t need much more after that. So say no to sniveling servants, unless there overweight. Then they’re bumbling idiots, and that’s funny.
Take it or leave it, this movie was worth at least 3 times the $4.99 I paid for it at the Duane Reade pharmacy next to work.