Being a movie that represents one of three movie passions of yours truly (after Category III and Hong Kong new wave of the late 70s/early 80s), what's up for review is actually the IFD version of Pearl Cheung's 1981 Taiwan fantasy Wolf Devil Woman, re-titled to Wolfen Ninja by IFD.
Gaining knowledge of both local and international film distribution through working with his sister Terry Lai (owner of Intercontinental Film Distributor, one of the biggest distributors of non-Chinese movies in Hong Kong that distributed to markets and territories such such as the Middle East, Europe and Africa), eventually head of Hong Kong based Production & Distribution Company IFD Films & Arts Joseph Lai spotted a chance to tackle and provide Asia with the flavour of the time. They produced and financed Korean shot kung-fu movies such as the acclaimed The Magnificent (starring Carter Wong and Chen Sing), was the first Hong Kong company to be part of the American Film Market (one of the major film markets for international distribution) and eventually sold their products via simpler deals and less expensive rates internationally thanks also to the choice of starting to dub the language tracks into English. Bringing on board college friend Tomas Tang and young director Godfrey Ho (both of which eventually founded own companies. Filmark in the case of the former), the most notorious and best known legacy of IFD (later copied by Filmark) was the idea of latching onto the ninja craze of the 80s (Western efforts such as Enter The Ninja and American Ninja being well known poster boys for this trend).
(The Snake Strikes Back and The Magnificent)
Acquiring a range of genre movies from various Asian territories such as Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and even Hong Kong, cut into these were Western actors (most notably former Spaghetti Western actor Richard Harrison) representing the ninja action plot of movies such as Ninja Terminator, Ninja The Protector, Ninja Thunderbolt etc. While not high art (Joseph Lai would and will always correctly say that they were aware of the film's limitations but also market power) and incredibly tough to follow at times, there is an energy present in these films that is both entertaining as a fan of less than refined cinema and fascinating if you put yourself into the mindset of a unit like IFD from a business perspective. It's all about satisfying your market so when ninjas had done their thing, IFD would go with the kickboxing trend and even superhero movies (the Catman movies etc). So across the globe in bargain bins you continually find the ninjas, the kickboxers and even animated children's cartoon bearing the IFD logo. (1*). Now that IS a legacy to speak proudly of. (2*)
Now as for how Wolf Devil Woman fits into all this, what is sadly unmentioned when speaking of IFD is that they appreciated the quality of exploitation, horror, action, thrillers and fantasy of the late 70s/early 80s coming out of Taiwan. Respecting the raw power and creativity to the point where these movies were mostly released sans any spliced in footage, this is the section of IFD's history I will attempt to highlight more and there's no better, crazier content for a chapter one than in Wolfen Ninja! Directed by and starring Pearl Cheung, one of the few women thoroughly headlining movies behind and in front of the camera when it came to these wild, Taiwan fantasies, she debuted as director with Dark Lady Of Kung Fu and would go on to (possibly) co-helm Matching Escort (3*). Having the pleasure to own the IFD version on Greek VHS, the pleasure lies in the fact that it's a rare widescreen version of the film (Ocean Shores released it in Hong Kong cropped to fullscreen) and for those hunting even the crappiest of IFD movies, Greece, France and Japan have turned out to be countries were widescreen sources on VHS were and are still available on Ebay (in Greece, mostly sourced from the worn cinema prints. Not in the case of the movie at hand though). It's easy to see why Joseph Lai and IFD eyed this one as surely a simultaneous thought occurred in both Lai and Cheung: provide and satisfy the market with entertainment... not art. However flawed it may be and Wolfen Ninja certainly IS to a high degree and one even wished IFD would've cut 5-10 minutes for better flow (4*). But a certain exciting, aggressive and creative flow IS there and that's the merits at least genre-fans will carry with them after this acid fueled trip during a few reels of Taiwanese, made on the cheap, Wuxia fantasy.
Fleeing from the grip of the Devil Army sacrificing humans to build a voodoo army, two parents (mother played by Pearl Cheung) and their infant girl sacrifices themselves in an avalanche. A pack of wolves find the child still alive and raise it as one of their own. Growing up to be an animal without any human interaction, Snow Flower as she's later named (again played by Pearl Cheung) befriends swordsman Li (Sek Fung) and his assistant Wong (Pa Gwoh) who teaches her human ways. Also on the hunt for a ginseng root to battle back against the Devil Army holding a firm grip on the people, Snow Flower's development also leads to uncovering the truth about her parent's death and she wants revenge...
After IFD's usual, Westernized and made up credits (Pearl's remains the same but we now have cast members called Samuel and Barry), we're thrown into an opening representing Pearl on a roll. Aggressive sounds of lightning and a camera disorienting us with distorted, disturbing imagery (the literal, cartoon gore isn't exactly crap your pants effective though), this and the subsequent sequences in this setup of Snow Flower ending up with the wolves can be argued to be quick cut and aggressive due to a lack of means to convey anything. Especially concerning action and truth be told, the wirework is quick cut and rather clunky but one thing Pearl knows is energy. Even when it's about the quick editing and coupled with being firmly planted in an intense Wuxia universe, it's absolutely captivating seeing the eerie sacrifices and later the Devil Army ninjas chasing down the parents. All set to completely exaggerated and in their own way immersing sound effects right out of an old Atari game (even for mundane actions like digging!).
Wolfen Ninja is also the kind of movie where logical details aren't all that important and being a rather appallingly bad viewer in terms of spotting details and inaccuracies, it's amusing to see Snow Flower grow up having made some rather fetching, animal costumes to wear. And later on she's very sexily made up as well... while also killing in the animalistic manner the character only knows of (animal lovers beware, some scenes are for real). Maintaining a fair momentum once Master Li and his assistant enter the frey (the latter represents loud mouthed, annoyance), it's fun watching the first human interaction for Snow Flower and especially when Li straightens her spine that will lead her on her way to a more human form. Freaky imagery of her turning white is a nice pre-cursor to latter sections of the film too and we got one instance where an appalling comedy sequence is almost saved by this out of nowhere transformation. In a sequence showing Snow Flower eating at a restaurant for the first time and going to town doing so, it's the exaggerated comedy routes taken here that gets Pearl huge disapproval because largely it's a sequence acting as padding and one case where IFD could've exercised some editing instincts.
But showcasing a decent cave set design and a fun finale in the Devil Army lair, Pearl continually gets approval for an atmosphere set despite no world class choreography or creativity being present. It is rather fun, despite the crudeness, to see quick cut ninja battles, colored smokey explosions, beheadings and the climactic appearance of the living dead or voodoo army. Pearl Cheung has a few minutes of tour de force filmmaking, not overall but again it's important to come around to the statement made earlier in this review. That her as a filmmaker, her producers, IFD and Joseph Lai all sought out to channel a commercial potential. The formula doesn't include high art in that case. A LOT of people knew that.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(1) Information above culled from various materials but primarily from Mike Leeder's interview with Joseph Lai available in unedited form HERE.
(2) The IFD intro and logo with a Star Wars-esque piece of score and a white Columbia-esque lady is actually footage from Chu Yen-Ping's insane Spaghetti Western mash-up of everything and a lot more called Pink Force Commando. A movie IFD acquired and presented intact and in it the lady in white gets shot quickly after this moment captured for the logo!
(3) Actually known as Wolf Devil Woman 2 but is not a sequel nor is Miraculous Flower despite the Wolf Devil Woman 3 re-title. IFD acquired that as well and released it as Phoenix The Ninja in a severely censored version. Pearl's credit reads Planning Director.
(4) Speaking of editing, there seemed to exist the golden rule of never passing the 90 minute mark in an IFD movie so as a matter of fact, Wolfen Ninja may have a few trims made to it as it's in PAL form runs 87 minutes.