Ninja in Ancient China (apparently made in 1989 but not released in 1993) is the last feature by master martial director Chang Cheh. During his glory years at the Shaw Brothers he was the studios top director and a key, if not the lead figure in the martial arts film boom. Interest in traditional styled martial films waned, the Shaws closed their doors on film production, so by the late 80's Chang Cheh found himself working in the mainland.
I'm actually not going to spend much time critiquing the plot. The poorly translated subs on the print make the storytelling nearly critique-proof. Its pretty difficult to accurately assess the films story when you have such puzzlers as, "We fear natural disturbate. We no longer take on learners." to decipher as well as the word "folks" dropped about twenty times when referring to someone who is a friend, clan member, etc. However, dialog debacle aside, awkward transitions do reveal that meaty plotting wasn't exactly the first thing on their minds. Its really all about the ninja razzle dazzle.
Taoist Yu is a good man, providing medical herbs and general medical care for the poor townspeople and a good dose of ninja training to his gaggle of students. Trained in ninja techniques related to the major elements, Wind, Fire, Water, Wood, and Metal, he discourages them from getting too involved in the warlord feuding that dominates the land.
But, an ambitious General Suen-Chak is making waves and Taoist Yu's students get involved, at first training some rebels, then actually taking part in assassination attempts. After Taosit Yu is killed, they all marshal their talents to seek revenge. However, the duo that infiltrates Suen-Chak's inner circle begin to feel sympathetic to the warlord, throwing a wrench in the five element ninja's thirst for revenge.
Ninja in Ancient China is interesting mainly due to its quaintness. When it was made, the modern, stunt crazy martial film and the John Woo bullet ballet gangster/crime flick (two genres that usurped the old school kung fu flick) were still all the rage, plus, the wire fu, heavily stylized martial films were just starting to take off.
Though it obviously riffs on his hallmark Chinese Super Ninjas, Ninja in Ancient China is decidedly seeped in the old school, largely lacking even the outlandishness of Chang Cheh films like 9 Demons and Heaven and Hell. Of course, it is grounded due to budgetary restrictions, and in place of those theatrics he does get to play out in the open air and make use of natural locales, an area where the Shaw's usually left their directors confined to the studios outer lots and interior sets. Different, sure, but I don't think its an equal trade off by any means. Give me the interior sets and more elaborate choreography and fx of the studiobound Chang Cheh any day.
The film has no shortage of action, nice sets, colorful costuming, a good crew of performers, and the final third delivers with some entertaining fight scenes. But, as a hardcore fan, you still get the sense that, removed from his comfort zone, removed from the era in which he flourished, Chang Cheh wasn't exactly firing on all cylinders. An old workhorse, still plugging along, still proving he could deliver, but detached from the wellspring (and support) that made him great.
The DVD: Greenfandvd.
Non-anamorphic Widescreen. The 1.66:1 image is nothing that will dazzle. The print is pretty worn, spotty, and washed out. Aside form the focus being off in a few scenes, the overall pic is pretty soft. One has to be a little forgiving, it is a rare film, though technically I can think of no good reason for not making an anamorphic transfer of a print source.
2.0 Stereo, Mandarin with burned-in English and Chinese subtitles. Acceptable audio transfer. Not the strongest source to work from, but the synth score is 80's rocking and the vocals have a minimal amount of muffle.
Unfortunately we have some on the print subs, typically headache inducing due to bad translation and weak legibility, fading into the background, and at times being cut off at the sides. I know DVD companies seem to frown on it, but I think if the only print you can get has burned-in subs, still include an option to display black-bordered, close caption styled subs on top of the wonky "Engrish" burned-in ones.
Dream Sword teaser. -- Image Gallery. -- Informative Liner Notes by Linn Haynes. Details the latter day evolution of Chang Cheh's career. -- Audio Commentary by Nick Watkins. A bit dry and prepared statement/ note-heavy, Watkins still does a nice job of going over the ins and outs of the film and how it fits within Chang Cheh's resume.
Even if this DVD presented transfer perfection I would hesitate recommending the movie to casual martial fans simply because it falls into entertaining but ultimately pretty middling territory. I am grateful and its welcome to have the film at all, but the transfer certainly wont wow anyone. Greenfan have a few other titles on the horizon, including Return fo the Deadly Blade, a film that I'm fond of, so hopefully they will improve in some technical areas and deliver some more kung fu rarities. Rent it if you are a casual fan. Buy it if you are a hardcore martial film junkie.