I gave this movie a shot after seeing a number of collectors call it a must-see. Given that most kung fu movie collectors gather movies for the sake of owning them rather than watching them (I’m really not kidding about this), that’s a huge compliment. Granted, the plot really doesn’t make that much sense, and some of the acting is rather terrible. But, I also admit, I overlook deficiencies in artistry and technique when it comes to wuxia movies of this vintage, especially with movies as entertaining as Jade Dagger Ninja.
Usually I prefer to watch wuxia in Chinese; something about dubbing movies based on Gu Long and Jin Yong novels into English never sat well with me. In the case of this film, and a few others (Pearl Cheung’s, for example) I make an exception. The dubbing team for Jade Dagger Ninja chose to have some fun, one assumes with the dubbing process, which includes the following immortal line: “You guys are supposed to be the four kings, huh? Well you’re no four-king good!” Deathless, brilliant, amazing, stupid: these are just some of the words one might use to describe such writing.
The makers of Jade Dagger Ninja actually intended the film as an adaptation of a novel from Gu Long’s Lu Xiaofeng series, though the above line sounds like bad a Groucho Marx imitation than it does Ian Fleming influenced wuxia. Since I don’t know Chinese, I can’t tell you which of the many novels this movie apparently adapts, but I can tell you that it’s based on whichever novel involves Lu Xiaofeng (played here by Tien Peng) searching for his wife’s killer while aiding a local martial arts clan in their fight against a vicious gang intent on stealing a potion that grants its owner martial arts prowess while also turning them green and growing their hair and causing them to speak in the same lion’s roar sound effect over and over again.
As movies in the genre are wont to do, Jade Dagger Ninja actually makes more sense after repeated viewings (or after one has read the book it’s based on) than it does when reduced to a plot synopsis. The basic gist of it is that a martial arts clan holds an artifact called (in the dub) the “purple jade badger,” which holds an elixir that will improve its users kung fu. The leader of this clan invites various important types from the martial arts world to witness the marriage of his daughter (Doris Lung), but various guests show up more or less to steal the jade badger. In the meantime, the Hearbreak Red gang tries various methods of ruining the happy occasion, murdering invited guests and sending a nymphomaniac swordswoman to seduce the groom (a stoic Tien Ho). Lu Xiaofeng pretends to represent his master, but is actually there in hopes of finding a lead on the whereabouts of his late wife’s murderer.
The story, of course, twists itself into a giant ball of conflicted character motivations and plot points and doesn’t so much resolve as simply end after a giant showdown in which Lu finally gets a shot at his wife’s killer.
Li Chia's The Lost Swordship is one of my favorite Taiwanese Gu Long adaptations, because it doesn’t feel like a sub-par Chu Yuan/Shaw Brothers knock-off. It used locations shots that would have been impossible in Hong Kong to create a different atmosphere than Chu Yuan’s urban other-world of studio sets and fog machines. One of the most irritating things about Taiwanese film makers of the era is their belief that they could do Chu’s gimmick on a budget even more impoverished budget than what a Shaw Bros. career director received. Chu Yuan productions, at their worst, look pretty cheesy and cheap, but they never look like they’re made of cardboard, like those in Jade Dagger Ninja.
Li Chao-Yun, co-director of Jade Dagger Ninja, actually made more ambitious films, (including Everlasting Chivalry, based on Gu Long’s Chu Liu Xiang stories) which were, broadly speaking, better films than this one. But I can’t help liking Jade Dagger Ninja, at least partially because I love writing its nonsensical title. The statuette which holds the elixir is clearly not a badger and there are neither ninjas nor daggers in the movie. The dubbing, which includes that awesomely terrible “four-king” line, is consistently weirder than a movie that already seems to not take itself very seriously.
In all honesty, I’ve not watched a kung fu movie for action scenes in a couple of years now. Maybe I’m jaded. None of the martial arts sequences in Jade Dagger Ninja excited me, much less surprised me, though I wasn't expecting to see a weapon that resembled the Full Moon Scimitar from the Shaw Brothers film of the same name. I still like wuxia movies, though, particularly for their characters. Tien Peng, director and star of numerous Taiwanese action films, really exemplifies a sort of cocky, obnoxious hero that I’d hate to see played by anybody except scrawny Tien Peng. He’s not a great actor, but he fits so well in these cheap productions, in part because he comes off so much like a poor-man’s Ti Lung. It’s also fun to see Tsung Hua completely not caring about his role. He plays a drunkard but lets his fake beard do his acting for him.
Purely as an exhibition of bizarre dubbing and strange, cheap Taiwanese film making, Jade Dagger Ninja really comes in second only to Nine Demons. But, short praise it may well be, it’s a better, more competent film than Chang Cheh’s worst. Your enjoyment of Jade Dagger Ninja might be directly proportional to how much alcohol you imbibe while watching; the phrase “your mileage may vary” has rarely been so apt in describing a film.