Of course anybody who saw Fantasy Mission Force (1982) knows the Second World War began when post-apocalyptic Nazi road warriors kidnapped Abraham Lincoln. Challenge of the Lady Ninja teaches us the Pacific war was fought between bald Japanese glam rock transvestite samurai warriors and a Chinese squad of sexy female ninjas in miniskirts and go-go boots. Movies like this are the reason why I aced my History A-levels…
Wong Siu-Wai (super-sultry Elsa Yeung Wai-San) is a lovely lady ninja in a blazing red outfit, first glimpsed graduating from ninja school. Able to fly, vanish in the blink of an eye, split into double-exposed duplicates and create explosions of multicoloured smoke, Siu-Wai demonstrates all these mystical powers then spins out of her clothes, Wonder Woman style, to dazzle opponents with her skimpy pink bikini. Ah, mysterious are the ways of the ninja. “How can a Chinese be a ninja?” complains a senior student (Peng Kong). He is rebuked by the ninja master who says: “Kung fu knows no boundaries.” Which becomes the touching mantra of an otherwise all-out exploitation film.
Returning home, Siu-Wai is dismayed to discover her doting dad has been killed by none other than her fiancé, Lee Tong (Shaw Bros superstar Chen Kuan-Tai, usually cast as the good guy) who has turned traitor. He now works as a high-class pimp for the Japanese, protected by a retinue of crack martial arts experts led by eccentric samurai Yamamoto (actor/director Robert Tai, whose own softcore-horror-ninja romp Ninja Final Duel (1986) is even crazier than this one). How eccentric, you say? Well, besides being the aforementioned glam rock transvestite, on his off-days Yamamoto likes to wear a pinstripe suit and bowler hat with a bright yellow daffodil stuck inside. He could’ve modelled for the late Alexander McQueen. Set on seeing Lee Tong die, Siu-Wai lends her skills to the Chinese resistance movement and hones a ragtag mob of peasant women, kung fu girls and disgruntled hookers into an all-girl ninja commando squad.
Challenge of the Lady Ninja is another of those Hong Kong movies that exist in a weird time warp. Forties women wear Eighties fashions, Japanese villains drive Cadillacs and WW2 archetypes (drawn more from movies than historical events) sit alongside moments of outrageous pulp fantasy and sub-Carry On sex comedy. Eroticism has been an aspect of ninja mythology going all the way back to ancient Japanese scroll paintings, so it’s no surprise our heroines get us much action between the sheets as on the battlefield. Though the film has a pleasing pro-feminist undertone in that patriotism transcends social stigma, it is countered by crass scenes where girls train in skimpy bikinis and short-shorts. At one point Siu Wai strips down to yet another bikini (adorned with strategically placed handprints?!) and wrestles an enemy lady tae kwon do expert in a vat of baby oil. All historically accurate, of course.
Veteran Lee Tso Nam, who made the equally nutty children’s film Kung Fu Wonderchild (1986), plays all the outlandish elements completely straight. So somehow scenes where Siu-Wai bites a bad guy with poison vampire fangs and the moment one villain produces a giant portable spider web to clamber up and down, seem perfectly natural amidst a story structure none too different from your average men-on-a-mission flick. What elevates this film to the front ranks of schlock ninja efforts are a number of agreeable shock twists and a surprisingly emotive turn from Elsa Yeung Wai-San, who handles moments of pathos as adeptly as her ninja moves. Yeung Wai-San was a regular face in loopy movies and brought her beguiling conviction to the likes of Bruce Kung Fu Girls (1975), Thrilling Bloody Sword (1981) - a martial arts version of Snow White! - and the all-star epic Golden Queens Commando (1984).
Energetic fight choreography is mixed with high-flying wire fu while the mystical nature of the ninja arts allows for rampant surrealism. Not least the amazing finale wherein Siu-Wai and her evil ninja brother (you knew he’d be back, didn’t you?) burrow underground and actually fight beneath the earth.