Shaolin vs. Ninja (1983)
Director: Mai Chen Jsai and Robert Tai
Writers: Chang Chien-chi
Starring: Chi Ping Chang, Shun Chien and Alan Chui Chung San

The Plot: Set around a Shaolin temple in China, the film follows the exploits of the monk Wei Chin who finds it impossible to deal with the Japanese ninjas who have become lords over the region. The Japanese soon devise a way to set Wei Chin up, and it involves instigating a battle between Shaolin with several other martial art schools in the area. However, this proves to be impossible, so the Japanese take a more forceful point of action and kill off a prominent monk, and then lay the blame on Wei Chin. With this accomplished, multiple schools within the martial world are now turning their anger towards the Shaolin. Eventually Shaolin and the Japanese are wrapped up in a deadly rivalry. A tournament is eventually held, and pride certainly proves to be on the line for both nations. However, a revelation will come during this tournament that will shed light on the death that instigated all of this animosity. Will the Chinese manage to survive this horrific ordeal, and will the few Japanese with any sense of honor step up and fight back against the evil lords who control them?

The Review
As I discussed in my Wu Tang vs. Ninja review, few things were as popular as “ninjas” were during the eighties. They became the leading heroes, and villains, for a number of martial art films that were imported from multiple countries. Although I consider myself a fan of the “ninja” concept, I have to admit that I have seen far more bad movies featuring these hooded assassins than I have seen good ones. If the movie in question doesn’t feature white guys dressed up as ninjas, then the movies are so ridiculously cheap that they become exploitative. The film that we are reviewing today, Shaolin vs. Ninja, certainly falls into the latter category. While I would like to say that it is a fun and inventive ninja movie that delivers on all of the zany action that audiences crave, it unfortunately comes nowhere close. The ninja action is quite intense, I have to give the movie that, and for that I was very pleased. This isn’t one of those “Ninja on the box, but nowhere to be seen in the actual movie” sort of flicks. No, we get black cloth ninjas in all of their ninja-star throwing glory. Unfortunately, it is the rest of the movie that falls short of the mark in every possible way that this genre ever could.

Like many of the worst films within the kung fu genre, this movie treats its plot as a secondary concept. Honestly, if I had not hit rewind and been very specific in my notes, I probably couldn’t explain the plot. There really isn’t much about the film that seems to make much conventional sense. Why exactly are these “ninjas” in China? Why are they the masters of this particular area? The film doesn’t seem to be set during any period of Japanese occupation, instead it simply seems as if it were set in some sort of weird reality with a alternate version of history. I am over-thinking this far too much, however, as historical context was something that I honestly doubt ever entered into the mind of our filmmakers. Shaolin vs. Ninja is skin deep and doesn’t attempt to be anything other than what it is: a Shaolin movie with a bunch of ninjas running around. There would be a certain charm to this, if only the movie were relatively entertaining. Unfortunately, the deck is absolutely stacked against the movie in terms of cinematic decency.

Honestly, there comes a point in Shaolin vs. Ninja where the viewer simply stops caring. I am not one to go into hyperbole all that often, but I honestly began to dread the time that I was wasting on the film. Between all of the horrid technical merits and the disastrous job that the distributors did on the film, the movie is annoyingly poor in its presentation. However, even with bad picture quality/dubbing/localization aside, you can tell that this was never a solid martial arts film. Although the martial arts tournament between Shaolin and the Japanese may break up the slow pace, it still eats up a huge portion of this short film’s running time, and it serves little or no purpose. Once it begins, you might think that it will only last for two or three fight scenes, but you would certainly be wrong. The movie initiates the tournament, and it simply seems to go on forever. I found myself spacing in and out, only coming back to full attention when something creative would happen. With zero character motivation or narrative progress at stake, such a scene seems to have little meaning. At this point, honestly, you are only watching a series of kung fu demonstrations.

Featuring a dub that puts almost all other kung fu dubs to shame, Shaolin vs. Ninja rarely gives the appearance of being a legitimate “movie.” Made in the early part of the eighties, this was most certainly a cheapie production shot in Taiwan. Director Robert Tai was no stranger to the world of low budget cinema, but this doesn’t prove to be one of his most earnest efforts. The American distributors, when they grabbed ahold of this title, decided that they had no intentions of retaining any sort of artistic credibility. Knowing that a proper and professional mix for the new English dub would cost much more than they were willing to throw into this project, the distributors decided to maximize their profits by putting as little effort into the release of the film as possible. With performers who sound as if they are falling asleep while reading their lines, it seems obvious that few “actors” were actually used in the recording of this dialogue. The synchronization is done so sloppily that it appears that actors speak without ever even moving their lips. Several times throughout the movie you will also notice all of the background noise simply seems to drop out completely, and sound effects seem to be missing as well. During a pivotal moment in the film where a key character is killed off, he is stabbed by an assassin but is given no sound effect whatsoever. The only noise heard comes from the poor performance of the “actor” who whimpers in a very unrealistic tone.

As horrid as I feel that this film may be, I have to give credit to the fight choreography. Although it is nothing special for the most part, some of the intricate movements and acrobatic choreography almost gives this movie a additional point in its rating. During one of the many fight sequences during the “tournament,” one character actually uses a flying body-scissors in order to take down his opponent. I don’t think I have ever seen such a move used in a kung fu title from the seventies or eighties. That sort of thinking is certainly worth giving some credit. There are also a few scenes that feature nunchaku, which are impressively used, and this is something that is actually rarely seen within Chinese martial arts pictures. I appreciate this aspect of the movie, and I enjoy how it tries to veer off of the beaten path in delivering on some rare items for the genre. The mix of styles and varying techniques from outside of traditional Kung Fu makes for some visual eye candy. Unfortunately, the fight choreography is just about all that this movie has going for it.

The Conclusion
What else is there left to say about the movie? Aside from a few surprising moments during the fight scenes, Shaolin vs. Ninja is a painfully boring title. It is as vanilla as movies of this variety can come, and it will push the nerves of any hardened old school Kung Fu fan who dares give it a whirl. If you absolutely must watch it, however, keep an eye on the choreography and try not to fall asleep. I give it a one out of five.