There are few feelings I enjoy as much as watching a movie that shakes me out of my complacency, wakes me up from my jaded quasi-slumber and makes me go “I haven’t seen that before!” I watch way too many films and it can take a lot to genuinely shock or surprise me, but there are few genres that manage it as often as martial arts.
Now, I appreciate there’s a lot of base level ‘weirdness’ to the genre if you’re not used to it. There’s curious dubbing, an emphasis on physicality over plotting, some eastern cultural touchpoints that baffle unfamiliar western audiences… but fans get used to all that. I’m talking about something slightly different.
To clarify, it might seem strange to new viewers when they watch Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire and find the vampires are hopping ghouls in jaunty hats, a far cry from the west’s Count Dracula. But that’s not weird at all by eastern standards. The jiangshi (hopping vampire) dates back as far as the Qing Dynasty in Chinese folklore. However, things get slightly weirder when jiangshi randomly hop their way into a film like Fantasy Mission Force, an otherwise non-supernatural WWII adventure romp with Jackie Chan and Wang Yu rescuing POWS. Things get properly weird, however, in a film like Vampire Raiders Vs Ninja Queen, and that’s why the latter’s made it onto this list.
Indeed, the field of martial arts frequently yields a strange harvest but I’ve done my best to pick out only the wonkiest veg for your viewing pleasure:
Shaolin Youth Posse (1984)
What’s it about? An evil princess wants to murder a young prince who’s hiding in the Shaolin Temple, so she sends in a series of fighters to try and break their way in. Sounds like a standard kung fu plot but there’s a twist. All the adult monks have gone away on some kind of mission, leaving the child trainees to defend against the endless swarms of attackers.
Why is it weird? The cast are predominantly under-12s so it’s a bit like watching a school play, albeit an inappropriately violent one. In the English dub, adult actors holding their noses and talking in creepy falsetto make the children sound like nightmare dimension Disney animals. The kids fight off ninjas, drag queen bandits, a vampire pervert, and the ghost of a Shaolin master (who bends time, flies around on very visible wires and turns into a skeleton). There’s even a weird romantic subplot in which a Tarzan Girl who lives in the jungle tries to seduce one of the child monks (it doesn’t work and she’s last seen grunting “Hmph! Men!” directly into the camera).
The ninja violence is way OTT – little kids gorily getting weapons to the face is not something you see every day – and the whole thing ends in a shower of exploding children and ninjas when a dynamite ex machina is brought out. It’s awful and tasteless and would be fifty shades of illegal to make in 2017 but it sure is weeeeird.
True Game Of Death (1979)
What’s it about? As an example of the Bruceploitation genre, True Game Of Death attempts to imitate Game Of Death. Basically, imagine that a small child watched Game Of Death and then tried to explain the plot. Then imagine that explanation being passed down a line of other small children and perhaps a talking dog until it was utterly incomprehensible. Play this explanation backwards. You’re nearly at True Game Of Death.
Why is it weird? There’s probably no weirder subgenre than Bruceploitation (and I wrote about some of the best examples already) but True Game Of Death is easily the most spectacularly terrible film to come from all that and its unabashed ineptitude makes it weird.
Bruce is played by three different (anonymous) actors. The director is credited as ‘Steve’ and the female lead as ‘Alice’.
The film hits peak weirdness during a sex scene between ‘Bruce’ and ‘Alice’ when he suddenly gets a headache and dies in screaming agony, while she writhes naked next to him, showing as much as possible to the camera. It’s an absurdly exploitative riff on Bruce’s actual death but made all the weirder by (an unlicensed) Don’t Cry For Me Argentina blaring across the soundtrack the whole time!
The twist is that it’s Alice who poisoned him, but don’t worry. He returns from the grave, shouts “It takes more than poison to kill me! I’m not dead!” as if that explains everything, then runs to a pagoda for a batty, zero-budget recreation of Game Of Death’s climax. Everyone looks like they’re in cheap, ill-fitting fancy dress. The pagoda itself is a chintzy, salmon-pink monstrosity and any fight choreography is just gurning and handslaps. Horrendous but unforgettably so.
Ninja III : The Domination (1984)
What’s it about? Chris (Lucinda Dickey, of Breakin’ fame) is a telephone engineer by day and aerobics goddess by night. Her world is turned upside down when a rogue ninja on the edge of death hands her his sword and, in doing this, possesses her body and soul, forcing her to take revenge on the policemen who killed him.
Why is it weird? Well, for a start, it’s the one where dancercise, exorcism and ninjas finally come together in one film (yes, I know – you’ve waited long enough, right?). Scenes of possessed Dickey, emerging from swathes of dry ice with back-combed hair, are intercut with lycra-clad dance sequences and martial arts violence as she bloodily disposes of cops.
The highlight (besides maybe the tomato juice erotica) is James Hong’s cameo as a Shinto priest trying to expel the ninja’s evil spirit. There’s an insane exorcism sequence in which Dickey’s eyes turn red, her face goes grey and her entire body spins around in the air while she spews mystical dust at him. Still, it’s all a waste of time since (as we all know) “Only a ninja can stop another ninja!” so they call in Sho Kosugi, who wears a Mindhorn-style eyepatch and brings the lasers. Yes, lasers. The final fight here is really something else.
Jade Dagger Ninja (1982)
What’s it about? The first thing you’ll notice about Jade Dagger Ninja is that there are no ninjas in it. There’s also a distinct lack of jade daggers. However, there is a Jade Badger and inside this priceless heirloom is a magical elixir that grants its drinker infinite power. The plot follows an array of colourful characters, all of whom want to get their hands on the Badger. “Where’s the mushrooms?” fans of old memes may ask. I can assure you they were all taken by the makers of this film…
Why is it weird? On paper, this looks like your usual wuxia tale but its lack of budget and abundance of energy makes it properly weird. There’s a gang of bandits who call themselves Heartbreak Red. They specialize in ruining people’s weddings. Their leader, the Heartbreak Warrior, is the main bad guy but here to pit their wits against him are great warriors like The Flying Fox, The Sunset Fairy and The Four Kings.
There’s some insanely overused wire-fu here with all characters zooming across the screen like walking was never even a thing. The effects of drinking the magical elixir, when revealed in the final fight, are way beyond barmy.
The maddest part of this hugely entertaining film, however, is the dubbed dialogue in the English print. It’s, uh, enthusiastic to say the least, but also full of zinging puns that were unlikely to have existed in the original language. When the Four Kings are beaten, their defeater yells, “So You’re the famous Four Kings, are you? Well, you’re no four-king good!” And you’ve just gotta love that.
Matching Escort (1983)
What’s it about? Pearl Cheung plays a girl with an unusual skill. Having worn heavy iron shoes since she was a child, whenever she takes them off she’s able to jump higher and run faster than everyone else. Those may not seem like particularly badass abilities but, when 73 (yes, 73) members of her family are slaughtered and she falls off a cliff, they come in handy for revenge. Luckily, she lands in the magical cave of ‘Uncle Strange’ – an old, crippled master – who teaches her the martial arts she needs to maximise her natural leaping and running abilities.
Why is it weird? This marvellously nutty wuxia is written and directed by Cheung herself (who’s one of my favourite eastern auteurs) and it’s a bit like the kung fu equivalent of walking into the Halloween aisle at your local supermarket. It has a freaky flamboyant aesthetic, all cobwebs, skeletons and devil masks. The costumes and hair (mostly designed by Cheung herself) resemble what, years later, would pass for western haute couture (if you’d said it was Gaultier, I’d have believed you!).
There’s a ton of splattery gore and freako villains and sped-up fight scenes that make little sense but look amazing. In the film’s highlight, Cheung duffs up over a dozen ninjas and wild men with axes on a beach in a little under ten seconds using her iron feet. Arguably, some of this is the kind of madness you’d expect from this kind of story but the fact that it all looks like it’s been shot by funhouse mirror Mario Bava makes it weird AF.
Vampire Raiders Vs Ninja Queen (1988)
What’s it about? This is a cut and paste film from Tomas Tang that splices ninjas and hopping vampires into a Taiwanese comedy about three girls who work on a hotel switchboard, all redubbed with a ‘new’ conspiracy plot. The ‘Purple Ninja Empire’ have taken some ‘very important documents’ away from a guy named Henry (“A real bastard!”) who has some vampires in his employ. He wants the papers back and this leads to a war between multiple ninja factions, all of whom – it transpires – are squabbling for control over the Hong Kong hotel industry!
Why is it weird? The cutting and pasting here is particularly strange, especially when we get hopping vampires merrily bouncing their way – via the magic of editing – into otherwise straightforward dialogue scenes. Said dialogue is pretty strange too. In one scene, a girl reads aloud from a Bible and I’m guessing the writer wasn’t paying attention in R.E. since his character intones, “And so God said to Moses ‘here are some commandments, get a pen and write them down!’”
The fighting is joyfully outlandish and features multi-coloured smoke bombs and pastel ninja suits (pink, purple and orange), along with flying vampire heads and magically extending scarves. The infamous highlight, however, is Deborah Grant as the ‘Bikini Ninja’ who fights a vampire on the beach for no real reason. Throw in a ‘comic relief’ scene with vampires trapped on a boat with a bucket of pee and you’ve got yourself one hella weird movie.
What’s it about? When producer Fred Weintraub saw Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas in a TV commercial he KNEW he had to be in a martial arts film. Thomas had no martial arts training but Weintraub invented a new style of fighting based around gymnastics and named it Gymkata! This was then shoehorned into an adaptation of a 1957 pulp novel called The Terrible Game, as Thomas gets sent to a fictional Himalayan country to compete in a mediaeval-style tournament. If he wins, he can prevent the US being nuked by Russia. When he asks the government why they’re sending him and not the army, they reply “military direct action isn’t our style… we need to send in one man”… and that man is a gymnast. What can I say? It was the 80s.
Why is it weird? Despite being of a higher budget than most of the films on this list, Gymkata is 100% batshit from start to finish, mashing up James Bond style espionage antics with lunatic martial arts and impressive gymnastic feats. The tournament itself is a great excuse for ninjas to roam randomly in the background and everyone dresses like they’re in the Ottoman Empire except Thomas, who wears a series of absurd preppy jumpers.
Of course, the crowning jewel is the ‘Village of the Crazies’ sequence – the last stage of the game, when Thomas finds himself in the place where the locals send their criminally insane. As soon as he gets there, a man attacks him then chops off his own hand with a sickle (to which Thomas exclaims a chirpy “Oh jeez!”) and it only gets weirder, culminating in an unbelievable brawl on a pommel horse (don’t ask why there’s a pommel horse in the middle of the village square). It’s a surreal scene, combining an eerie gothic aesthetic with ridiculous violence and, if Kurt Thomas is to be believed, the extras playing ‘the crazies’ were genuine Yugoslav mental patients! Classic stuff.
Drunken Wu Tang (1984)
What’s it about? As the third in the Yuen Clan’s Miracle Fighters series, Drunken Wu Tang (aka Taoism Drunkard) stars Yuen Cheung-Yan (who also directed) as an old drunk on a quest to find a virgin born on the 15th of August (yeah, these quests are getting pretty weirdly specific by now). In a dual role, he also reprises his drag character of ‘Granny’, an elderly female magician whose grandson Chiu (Yuen Yat-Chor) turns out to be a virgin born on the 15th of August. There’s a dude in a devil suit calling himself The King of Hell running around being evil but, really, trying to unravel any more of this mayhem is pretty futile. Just go with it.
Why is it weird? You could take almost any scene in this film and it would answer that question. While magical/fantasy martial arts are commonplace in the genre, here they’re taken to ludicrous levels. It has a really low-budget vibe but doesn’t skimp on ideas, pitting its heroes and villains against an array of colourful enemies, mechanical traps and monstrous freaks. There’s flying nonsense, giant moving fruit, spinning tunnels made of fire, ghosts, demonic possessions, reanimated corpses and a lot of juvenile humour. The highlight however is the Watermelon Monster, a giant mechanical ball with legs and extending arms who barks in a high pitched voice and takes on all comers. Honestly, every fight this thing appears in is just a joy and (tragically) unique to this film.
Lady Iron Monkey (1979)
What’s it about? Ming (Gam Fung-Ling) is half-woman/half-monkey and has been raised by apes. This puts her at an advantage when it comes to doing monkey style kung fu but she doesn’t care. All she wants is to be human and pretty. She heads off into the world and soon develops a crush on ‘Fourth Prince’ (Chan Sing), a charismatic royal who is maybe, somehow, falling for her, fur, tail and all…
Why is it weird? While the story flows surprisingly well, mixing ugly duckling makeover hijinx, classical romance, intrigue and martial arts to enjoyable effect, there’s no doubt that Lady Iron Monkey is a deeply bonkers movie. I mean, if shaving an ape and having her attend fancy dinners isn’t enough for you, the scene in which she learns how to fight with her tail (!) is perhaps unique amongst training montages. Eventually Ming learns how to levitate with the tail being used as kind of a propeller and it’s a trick that pays off big time when she delivers, at the film’s climax, probably the weirdest finishing move I’ve ever seen in a fight…
American Commando Ninja (1987)
What’s it about? Honestly, your guess is as good as mine. Godfrey Ho and Joseph Lai (notorious for their cut and paste ninja films) put this – and its sister film Born A Ninja – together from shot-on-video footage they took from a very cheap Taiwanese TV show. I’ve no idea how many episodes it ran for but they figured it would work better in two 90 minute chunks, with scenes re-edited in a completely random order, and re-dubbed with a new ninja-themed storyline. The result is almost 100% incoherent. But here goes. An evil Japanese scientist called Tanaka invented a biological weapon in WWII. It’s now the 1980s and some Russians, some Triads, a pair of female martial artists and a couple of ‘American’ ninjas are all on the trail of it.
Why is it weird? American Commando Ninja has the effect of actually making you question your own sanity by the end. Everyone wears dayglo neon and speaks in riddles. Larry, one of the ninjas, claims to be a master of ‘Hocus Pocus style’ kung fu (!), which means he can shoot flames out of his fingers. There’s a McGuffin chase for something called the Golden Horns. One character, Brenda (who wears tiny shorts made from a confederate flag), has been on a lifelong mission to avenge her parents who were murdered in WWII. This is undermined when another character puts it to her “If your parents were killed in WWII that would make you at least 40 years old! Are you 40?” She shakes her head sadly as she realises her life has been a lie. Shame she couldn’t have worked that out before really.
The ‘stunts’ are flat-out weird too – at one point, a man is supposedly pushed from a moving car although all we see is one man in close-up pushing thin air and the other then rolling himself slowly along the middle of the road for a shot that goes on for waaaay too long.
The dialogue seems to have been run through translation software and no one reading it ever stops to wonder whether it makes sense (“I got some news for you! Good news!“ says one. “Goose?” replies the other, mishearing them for no discernible reason). By the time a Taiwanese disco song called Tiger Of The Night starts playing, you’ll be on your knees, wondering what alternate dimension you’ve fallen into.
So there you go. Enough mindbending martial arts to make you question everything you thought you knew, for at least a few hours. Hope you enjoyed the list and let me know your own favourite crazy kung fu flicks in the comments below!
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This article comes from Den of Geek UK.