Ninja In The Dragon's Den Review
From the moment I pressed play I could just tell this rare 1982 classic was going to be something special. As the opening credits roll we are treated to a display of Ninja's training, from throwing Ninja Stars to tunnelling underground to climbing trees with their claws the demonstration is fun, if a little hokey. But what really tops it off with a fine layer of sugar coating is the classic, pure eighties sounding ninja song whose name escapes myself and probably 99% of the planets population, but if there was ever a tune that you initially turned your nose at only to be drawn in and come to love its subtle blend of cheese then this is it!
As you might expect with a title of this vintage the actual storyline is nothing to write home about, although I do think they made a little more effort with this title than some of the classic martial arts pictures released around the same time. After the wonderful opening sequence two very different characters whose paths will eventually cross are gradually introduced to the audience. Jen Moo (played by Hiroyuki Sanada) is a rogue ninja in China seeking vengeance, and in doing so he is causing disrespect to fall upon his original Ninja clan who in turn dispatch some men to end their troubles and Jen Moo's life. On the other hand, Master Ching (played by Conan Lee) is a young Chinese Martial Arts master who likes to tease his friend Ah Chee, and show off his talents whenever the opportunity arises, which involves defeating the son of the 'Leader of God Skills society', an action I am sure you can guess will come back to haunt him.
Our two characters paths cross when Jen Moo's next target turns out to be Master Ching's adopted father, Uncle Foo. From the moment these two masters of their respective arts meet truths are revealed amongst some of the most inventive and acrobatic onscreen action you will have witnessed in a long time, while super kicker Hwang Jang Lee arrives for the final 10-minutes as the Leader of the God Skills society to defeat the cheeky Master Ching who sullied his good name. Okay, so maybe the story of revenge and your over-confident young master has been seen a dozen times before but we all love these stories. They work at the most basic levels and the way in which Ninja in the Dragons Den resolves some of the more unexpected twists is interesting and allows for a frankly hilarious finale (if you enjoy seeing people chopped to bits and some quaint sexual humour like myself!) which is possibly more entertaining they we deserve. Also unusual for such an early Hong Kong production (and I am going off on quite a tangent here!) but highly commendable is the use of both Cantonese and Japanese languages. This particular aspect is a must for the scenes where Ching and Jen Moo cannot understand each other, but in titles of this era you would frequently see them dubbed entirely into either Cantonese or Mandarin rendering the language barrier useless. Fortunately with Ninja in the Dragon’s Den the original languages are maintained and the film feels more accomplished as a result.
Moving along at a steady pace the story is interjected with frequent moments of comedy, mainly involving Master Ching's unfortunate associate Ah Chee, but we also get to delight in Ching's methods of dispatching his lesser enemies that always involve witty remarks and embarrassing defeats, all of which is delivered, much to our merriment, by the charismatic Conan Lee. The main fuel for Ninja in the Dragons Den is of course the action sequences, of which the action choreography comes from the films director, a young Corey Yuen-kwai who many readers will be more familiar with through his long-term working relationship with Jet Li with their most recent collaboration being The One. For any fans of the genre who have become disenchanted with his latter work (that is more wire-based than ever) then look no further than the fights developed for and superbly executed by the talented Conan Lee and Hiroyuki Sanada. From a stilt-assisted fight to the use of the traditional Alter which establishes a master of magic's power the fights are a wonderful mixture of Martial Arts styles and traditions, with the main action having the feel somewhere between the traditional martial arts you would find in the likes of Magnificent Butcher and the faster action you would find in the likes of Iron Monkey. For all you ninja fans out there you will too be treated to a number of traditional Ninja tricks from the more mundane use of explosives to the more outrageous technique of tunnelling!
If I had to pick faults with Ninja in the Dragons Den then my attention would initially turn to the passing resemblance that our two leads, Conan Lee and Hiroyuki Sanada have, that when combined with odd piece of choppy editing which sees a scene come out of no-where (the teahouse scene is one such example) you could be forgiven for a brief case of mistaken identity. Another problem that is all too common with Hong Kong action titles is the use of comedy that most find too localised to be humorous to our western tastes. I rarely find this myself and in most cases am regularly amused by Hong Kong Action titles (with Ninja in the Dragon's Den proving to be extremely funny in places) but one scene in this title (at the medical shop) left me bemused until Bey Logan cleared it up in the Audio Commentary which served as a general reminder of this common flaw many people cite with Hong Kong Action movies. These minor points do more to showcase that I am struggling to present any real flaws with Ninja in the Dragon's Den than actually provide you with reasons not to see it and the explanation for why is that Ninja in the Dragon's Den is quite simply one of the most entertaining Martial Arts films I have seen in a long time and most definitely one of the best Ninja films (although to be fair I have seen very few) available.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is Regions 2 and 4 Encoded.
Presented at the original 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement Ninja In The Dragon's Den looks absolutely spectacular when you take into consideration the age of the film and the well documented poor storage conditions early Hong Kong films were subjected to. The print sourced is in sparkling form featuring barely a speck of damage, while film grain too is kept to an absolute bare minimum allowing a high level of detail to shine through onto our screens. Colour reproduction and black levels are equally superb and hold together well throughout the film, although I did notice a couple of frames where the master used was in a very deteriorated state, but we are literally talking frames, not even seconds so it is barely noticeable. The only minor problem I noticed with the transfer was how the border-lines on both the top and bottom of the picture had a 'step-down' effect (rather than one solid straight line for the border, it steps down a row of pixels about a quarter of the length of the screen) which is to my knowledge more commonly seen with Anamorphic Transfers displayed on 4:3 Television sets - this is however an extremely minor fault that certainly does not spoil your enjoyment of this wonderful effort.
Foregoing the usual DD5.1 remixes HKL have instead provided us with the original Cantonese Language track and the English Dub track in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo format. As can be expected from such an old film the quality of stereo separation is basic at best, but perfectly adequate for the onscreen action. There is no sign of background hiss and in general speech, sound effects and that superb soundtrack are all well reproduced although in terms of music quality the English Dub track just edged past the preferable Cantonese alternative. Speaking of the English Dub track, while I have not listened to the entire offering what I sampled seemed to fit the mood of the film well, with a good dub-cast and although some Japanese dialogue is still present it is very minimal leaving most of the film purely in English which all but defeats the purpose of having different nationalities speaking their own languages in a film. Still, it serves its purpose well and I doubt those looking to utilise the English dub will be all too bothered by the lack of any Japanese language to separate the characters nationalities in the film.
The optional English subtitles are as ever well presented with not one spelling or grammatical error present, while we are of course presented with optional Dutch subtitles as well.
Bey Logan has returned to his Audio Commentary duties for Ninja in the Dragon's Den and has provided us with another gem of a track that is literally packed full of information and anecdotes relating to the film and its stars. Throughout the track Bey relates to us the basic facts on Conan Lee's interesting career, and indeed the choices he made after the release of this film that led to him becoming just another action performer rather than the promising action star he could have become. In the midst of this interesting subject we are treated to various discussions on the origins of the Ninja arts, the various fighting styles used throughout the film, and of course considerable attention is paid to the other primary characters involved in the film, Director Corey Yuen-kwai and co-star Hiroyuki Sanada, while every regular character actor and stuntman are pointed out and briefly discussed. Excelling himself yet again this is a commentary track you will return to time and time again thanks not only to the information imparted but the personal viewpoint given from a true fan of the genre.
A quite rare inclusion for early Hong Kong films is that of Deleted Footage but Hong Kong Legends have succeeded in obtaining just over 5-minutes of cut scenes that seem to be taken from a Japanese print of the film, as there are what I believe to be burnt in Japanese subtitles for the Cantonese dialogue. Presented in 4:3 (and looking severely cropped as a result!) the quality of the picture is a mile apart from the main transfer, but what we are most interested in are the cut scenes. The Bull Devil sees a scene in the films 'stilt' based combat scenes given a longer introduction where 'The Bull Devil' gets to pummel a few of the locals, while Spiritual Boxers is another extended introduction scene, this time featuring the son of the 'Leader of the Gods Skills society' in action. The final deleted scene is a brief section of dialogue between Conan Lee and Hiroyuki Sanada as they begin their final battle and like the other deleted scenes, is worth a look and certainly a welcome inclusion to the disc, but you can certainly see why they took these scenes out from the films Cantonese print.
The Interview Gallery features a single 25-minute segment presented in Anamorphic Widescreen that sees Producer Ng See-Yuen and Seasonal Films ex Marketing Man and movie actor Roy Horan (Game of Death 2) talk almost exclusively about Ninja in the Dragons Den. This proves to be an excellent behind the scenes look where Ng See Yuen and Roy Horan (interviewed separately then edited together) explore the films origins and we learn about their collaboration with both the Japanese stars and stuntmen who worked on the film, the introduction of Corey Yuen to the world of direction and most interestingly of all Conan Lee's first Hong Kong movie and the results of its success - all of which makes for intriguing viewing.
In what now seems to be a permanent change in direction for HKL the Biography Showcase section features static text screens with this particular disc featuring biographies for producer Ng See Yuen (16 screens) and co-star Hwang Jang Lee (7 screens). As is to be expected these are merely rehashed biographies from, in this case the excellent Game of Death 2 DVD, and while they are a welcome, if somewhat brief look at the men featured I just found them an example of laziness on HKL part when neither person are as integral to the film when compared to the likes of Corey Yuen-kwai, Conan Lee and Hiroyuki Sanada, all of whom would require newly researched and written biographies, unlike those found on this disc.
The last set of extra features come in the form of a Trailer Gallery which features what is possibly the longest Theatrical Trailer I have ever seen. Weighing in at a mammoth 6:30minutes the Original Theatrical Trailer is presented in 2:35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, as is the more manageable 2-minute HKL Promotional Trailer. Also present in this section is a Japanese Campaign Trailer that presented in Non-Anamorphic 1:85:1 Widescreen focuses on the Japanese talent seen in this film.
In one of his best Audio Commentaries to date Bey Logan kicks things off by saying "If ever there was a cult movie deserving of restoration it must be this one" and how right he is! Ninja in the Dragons Den is an absolute delight and thanks to this superb DVD from the team at HKL any self-respecting fan of Hong Kong Action Movies would be insane to pass this disc by.