Many years ago I picked up a VHS tape of Ninja Terminator on the strength of its cover art; a ninja in a camo suit drop-kicking a sunset, above a dramatic city skyline. It was beautiful and the film delivered on this promise. Loaded with multi-colored ninjas and epic Hong Kong cityscapes, Ninja Terminator served martial arts insanity with such flair that, despite a visible lack of budget or coherence, I fell in love. When I found out this was part of a loose series of ninja films from a director called Godfrey Ho, I set out to find as many as I could… Back then, there wasn’t much information out there to help me so I just chanced upon the odd tape here and there. It was only much later that I found out studying Ho is a little like the theory of the Earth being supported by a World Turtle, propped up by a tower of larger and larger turtles. In this cosmological conundrum, it’s suggested that the final turtle isn’t standing on anything because there is no final turtle. It’s just turtles all the way down… and that’s a little like Godfrey Ho. It’s ninjas all the way down. A guy could lose his mind in here.
To begin with, you only need to look at Ho’s IMDB page to see that he directed at least 118 films, almost all of them in the 1980s. Most of them have “ninja” in the title. There are also countless films that Ho was involved in pseudonymously, many of which are still uncredited to him.
To further complicate, Godfrey Ho’s filmmaking technique was somewhat radical. I didn’t realise this when I first starting watching them, but Ho would splice together limited footage he shot himself (mostly just dudes in ninja suits hitting each other) with completely unrelated films of questionable origin. He’d record an English language dub track for the combined film that would attempt to thread a new plot over these multiple old ones. Some of the same footage was reused many times over in completely different stories. The bizarre results of these experiments have both enchanted and enraged cult film fans for decades. The ways Ho tried to mash unrelated films into one were astonishing and often very funny. For example, he’d use period footage as ‘back story’ or claim that unrelated characters were the same person, younger and older, again with flashbacks. He’d chop scenes together that had similar backdrops and have characters from two films appear to ‘talk’ to one another across the scene. They’d sometimes read newspapers with carefully cut-in headline shots that harked back to scenes from the other movie. Characters from one film would watch characters from another on a TV screen disguised as ‘surveillance footage’ or blackmail videos. If you stop to think, it’s actually quite clever and undeniably audacious.
Overlooking the obvious problem of the films not always making sense, it’s hard to argue that they give the viewer what they want. Shamelessly so. If a scene lifted from, say, a Taiwanese family drama starts getting too talky, don’t worry. Ho will just splice in a magical ninja, who’ll appear from a puff of psychedelic smoke.
As his audience grew more demanding and trends changed, Ho cut together robots, vampires, zombies, giant serpents and all kinds of weirdness in with the ninjas. It’s a brave approach whose results, while undeniably chaotic, were compelling. No matter how many films you’ve seen, you’ll never guess what’s coming next in a Godfrey Ho film. His style rips the rule book to pieces. Even the soundtracks were often stolen from recognizable bands or other films’ scores. What a surprise it is, for example, in Ninja Terminator when Pink Floyd starts playing just before a fight breaks out! When asked by the website Narnarland.com (whose Ho archives are unrivalled) why he kept splicing the same ninjas into so many films, Ho replied simply it was “because they are on a kind of mission so the mission can be in this movie or another one.” You can’t argue with his logic, even if the nature of the mission itself is frequently shrouded in ninja mystery. A ‘confidential blueprint,’ a ‘top technical secret’ or some ‘very important documents’ will often be at the centre of it but the contents of these vital McGuffins are never revealed.
As these films were pumped out by the dozen and mostly by Ho alone in an editing suite, information is scant and contradictory as to what was being shot, when and who by. Memories of the elusive Ho vary wildly, depending on who’s being asked. Some say he was a good-natured and enthusiastic professional, always friendly and reliable with payments. Others paint him as an inveterate liar, a dangerous conman, and known Triad associate, who would kill animals on set and laugh about it.
Veteran genre actor Richard Harrison has been outspoken of how he believes Ho ruined his career. He allegedly signed up for a couple of ninja films and had his footage spliced into at least twenty (all of which had him credited as the star). As a final irony worthy of one of his own narratives, Ho retired from moviemaking at the end of the ’90s and now teaches at the prestigious Hong Kong Film Academy. Pretty impressive work for a guy whose films are often namechecked as some of the worst of all time. Funny as it may seem at first though, this makes a strange kind of sense. Before he deconstructed his craft into notorious no-budget ninjas, Ho had to learn it and learn it well. He began his career working for the legendary Shaw Brothers as an Assistant Director to Chang Cheh who, at this point in the mid-70s, was riding high with evergreen kung-fu classics like The Blood Brothers and The Savage Five. John Woo was actually Second AD on The Blood Brothers and Godfrey Ho was First!
It’s strange to think about, given their subsequent trajectories, but both of these auteurs first learned the ropes of shooting, editing, dubbing and directing under the intense hardworking conditions of the biggest and best studio in Hong Kong.
Wanting to branch out but realising that he could never compete with giants like Golden Harvest or the Shaws, whose mainland success was tremendous, Ho figured there was no point even trying. Instead he noticed a gap for Hong Kong films in the international market. Many directors were scared to chase it but Ho prophetically saw this as the way forward. Cutting his teeth on a string of moderately successful, low-budget martial arts movies (and realised that the ones with caucasian actors sold better internationally), Ho hit his stride when he hooked up with producer Joseph Lai. Lai was adept at international film sales and had many contacts on the festival circuit. He set up a video production company called IFD with an old school friend – the mysterious Tomas Tang (whom many believe to be Godfrey Ho himself, despite there being no concrete evidence either way) – and they bought the rights to a ton of Korean, Tawainese, Thai, Japanese and Chinese films, some of which were incomplete, all of which were cheap and/or tough to market.
As the American-made Cannon ninja flicks with Sho Kosugi hit the big-time, IFD hatched their plan to ride the wave. Ho would splice his quickly-shot ninja footage into the incomplete films IFD had kicking around their archive. Lai would take the finished product to festivals and sell them under amazingly blunt names like Ninja Terminator, Ninja Thunderbolt, Ninja Destroyer, Ninja Dragon, Ninja In The Killing Fields (spoiler: there are no fields in this movie), or Ultimate Ninja. The important thing was that the footage they featured Westerners because this was what made it sell overseas.
Beyond the cast, Ho and Lai tried their best to appeal to English-speaking tastes. All their characters would be given comically over-anglicized old-fashioned names like Harry, Gordon, Bruce or Alan. American pop culture imagery littered the background of their films including, most famously, Richard Harrison – as “Ninja Master Harry” – having life-or-death conversations on an absurd Garfield phone (apparently Ho heard that Garfield was popular in America and figured this would be a cool thing for an American ninja master to own). Nuts as it may seem, IFD’s plan worked, to say the least. Maybe if you didn’t grow up in the ’80s you might not remember just how big a genre Martial Arts was but at IFD’s peak, Lai claims to have sold between 30 – 40 films at every festival he went to (anyone working in film now who’s reading this – please take a moment to collect your jaw from the floor).
The demand for new ninja films got so high that Ho stopped even hiring actors. He would send a runner to the Chungking Mansions (home to many cheap, student-friendly guesthouses) and put up a sign saying he needed Caucasian faces for ninja movies – no experience required. The stunts would all be done by Asian stuntmen (the ninja suits providing an excellent means for hiding faces) and the dialogue would all be dubbed so all the ‘cast’ really had to do was stand there and make faces.
When asked (again by narnarland.com) what Godfrey Ho’s directorial style was like, mainstay ninja Stuart Smith replied that his clearest memory was being told, no matter how much he shouted and bugged his eyes, “I can’t see you acting – more acting!” The uniquely manic style of the bizarro non-actors is a big part of the films’ delirious appeal. Everyone amped themselves up to eleven so that Ho could “see them acting”.
Sadly, in the mid-80s, Lai had a falling out with ‘Tomas Tang’ and Tang formed his own company, Filmark. An apparent bitter rivalry emerged between the two and actors were supposedly forbidden to work for both at the same time. This is an unusual claim though, as the bulk of Filmark and IFD’s output was still being directed by Godfrey Ho (if not always by name then unmistakably by style) and some of his mainstay actors – like Stuart Smith, Cornish ninja Mike Abbott and diabolical laughter voiceover king Pierre Tremblay – happily star in films by both companies, lending weight to the conspiracy theory that the split was just a way for Ho and Lai to generate twice the product.
Whoever Tomas Tang was, he apparently perished in a fire in the 90s taking Filmark with him but, by then, the ninja boom was long over. Godfrey Ho set up another new production company – the similarly named Filmswell – and ended his career triumphantly with a string of successful Cynthia Rothrock thrillers including Undefeatable, whose legendarily camp final fight eventually became a YouTube sensation.
Still, despite the baffling (and almost certainly shady) history, between them, IFD and Filmark left a tremendous ninja legacy. As I say, I first came across it on VHS at the height of the ninja boom but I’ve met many people far younger than me with a similar passion who’ve come in via DVD. The films have been perennial pound shop pick-ups for decades (even now, you could amass an extensive Ho collection for £20 without much effort) and the Undefeatable final fight scene has over 11 million hits on YouTube.
There are even several seasons out there of a lovingly made parody web series called Ninja The Mission Force (which you can find at neonharbor.com). Whatever it is, whether you’re laughing at them, with them or just marvelling at their unique oddness (and occasionally brilliant fight choreography, it must be said), Godfrey Ho’s films cross generations and his cult following grows.
It isn’t really about whether these films as good or bad – they’re so far outside of what constitutes regular filmmaking that value judgements feel redundant. I think, deep down, especially as film grows arguably ‘safer’ by the year, some of us just crave a little cinematic anarchy.
Godfrey Ho’s eternal and somewhat abstract ninja mission provides this in spades and makes us question all we thought we knew. Long may candy-coloured ninja heroes like Gordon, Harry, Bruce and Alan search for their confidential blueprints, very important documents and golden ninja statues. All hail the Ninja Empire and may it one day be restored to its natural glory. Or at least get a Blu-ray boxset release.