Ninjas are cool.
Sure, they killed people. But they were primarily spies that used incredibly intricate tactics that not even agents of shadowy, 21st-century governments have the patience or discipline to employ. Their mystery and danger have mythified them in pop culture as they have become heroes of lore, defeating demons and dragons and all kinds of bizarre creatures of fiction. Surely they would be great subjects for cinema, right?
Well, they are! But they aren’t celebrated nearly enough. Unlike samurai and kung-fu films, ninja movies tend to be clustered within “grind house” circles. While that’s perfectly fine, it also means their merits are dismissed. Film snobs grossly turn their nose up. Mention it in a film class and your professor’s eyes will glaze over. It’s hard to see a particular genre of cinema seriously when their titles evoke a Super Nintendo game than a film.
Bring up samurai in film and you’re given Akira Kurosawa, Zatoichi, or Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins. Discuss kung-fu and you’re directed to Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan circa ’80s and ’90s. Oh, and a guy named Bruce Lee.
But when it comes to ninjas, can you name even one movie?
This weekend in New York City will be the Old School Kung-Fu Fest held by Subway Cinema, the badass nonprofit that promotes and exhibits Asian pop culture with year-round festivals and events that bridge both sides of the Pacific. This year’s festival theme? The badass, brutal killers of an era long gone by, the ninja.
While they are most notable for the New York Asian Film Festival every year, in the last few years they have unleashed the Old School Kung-Fu Festival to the delight of all action film enthusiasts living in the world’s greatest city. I recently spoke to Subway Cinema founder and Executive Director Goran Toplavoic, Co-director Samuel Jamier and Director of Operations/Associate Programmer Rufus de Rham about their upcoming festival this weekend and just what it is we find so cool about ninjas.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did the Old School Kung-Fu fest begin? What is its origin story?
Goran: The basic idea for the Old School Kung Fu Fest was to share some of our favorite classic Hong Kong martial arts films, screened from the original 35mm prints whenever possible, with an equally appreciative audience, and to bring back the grindhouse experience reminiscent of the old 42nd Street and Chinatown theaters. The first edition was held in December of 2000 at Anthology Film Archives, right after our very first official event as Subway Cinema (Expect the Unexpected: Johnnie To Retrospective in September 2000). We sourced the prints from private collectors, and ended up with an eclectic program that included Sammo Hung’s
We sourced the prints from private collectors, and ended up with an eclectic program that included Sammo Hung’s The Victim (1980), Chang Cheh’s Crippled Avengers (1978), and Lau Kar-leung’s Martial Arts of Shaolin (1985) featuring Jet Li in one of his early roles. We did another edition in 2001, but at that point our attention was shifting towards more contemporary Asian genre films, which resulted in When Korean Cinema Attacks! (the first New York Korean Film Festival) in 2001, and the launch of the first annual New York Asian Film Festival in 2002. For the next 12 years, we have been primarily working on growing NYAFF, and there wasn’t going to be another Old School Kung Fu Fest until 2013.
Rufus: So three years ago we wanted to bring back some of the fun and focus again on what got us into Asian film in general. As NYAFF was focused more and more on the best and brightest in recent and contemporary Asian films, we needed a place to showcase our favorite classic films. Old School Kung Fu Festival was resurrected at the place where it all began: Anthology Film Archives.
This year will be the fifth year of the festival. In what ways has the Old School Kung-Fu fest surpassed your expectations from when you started five years ago?
Goran: There’s never been any grand ambition with respect to the Old School Kung Fu Fest. The very fact that we’re able to find these old films and show them again in a movie theater with an audience – the way they were always meant to be seen – is already a success.In what ways has it fallen short, if at all?
In what ways has it fallen short if at all?
Goran: While the event hasn’t fallen short in any respect, we increasingly want to venture beyond just the martial arts cinema, and to explore other genres in the future editions of the fest, such as Hong Kong’s infamous Category III films, Asian action movies featuring Western actors, Indonesian exploitation, Girls with Guns, and so on.
Samuel: Yes. So maybe a move from Old School Kung Fu, to Old School Asian in general.
This year’s theme is ninjas. How did you decide to showcase this particular genre this year?
Rufus: I was arguing for ninjas since we decided to reboot Old School. Mostly so we could showcase Five Element Ninjas (aka Chinese Super Ninjas), which has been a favorite film since I was a kid. Also ninjas are just cool. Of course they don’t quite fit in with the Old School Kung Fu label but we’ll likely be transitioning the title to plain Old School Fest, so that, as Goran mentioned, we can expand and show more classic genre films from all over Asia.
What is it about the ninja genre that you wanted to show audiences at this year’s festival? What did you want them to know about it versus other subgenres of martial arts movies? Any stereotypes you hope to shatter?
Goran: This has nothing to do with shattering stereotypes. Most of it is simply nostalgia – being able to watch again on the big screen all the fun films that we grew up with, regardless of how accurate their portrayal of ninjutsu was, and how laughable some of them may look now from the contemporary perspective. However, we also wanted to show our audience some of the more serious depictions of ninjas in the rarely seen Japanese films from the 1960s.
Ninjas in cinema certainly haven’t been shown in any historically accurate way, almost ever. Why do you think ninjas have such a mythical power in pop culture?
Rufus: Ninja clans cultivated a lot of these myths themselves, and this has been maintained through the history of art, theater, literature and film. Who doesn’t love clandestine warriors? They have become part of the national Japanese folklore, and much of the exaggeration is in the same vein as any national myth building (the US and cowboys, for example).
Samuel: The appearance, the outfit, the mask, the esoteric martial arts practice certainly contributed to their mythical power. Visually it’s quite striking.
Why do you think ninjas are not as prevalent in the cinema the way other genres are? Samurai movies are hailed by critics and kung-fu smashes the box office. Why then are ninjas a part of the “grind house” culture?
Rufus: I think they are extremely prevalent, but maybe not as critically lauded. Why? One word. Cannon. This is really where the ninjas and grindhouse came from. Also I suppose Godfrey Ho did his noble part in the ninja grindhouse experience. Also you have to take into account Teenage Mutant Ninjas Turtles (1990) which was, for a long time, the most successful independent film ever made. The four heroes in a half-shell exploded ninja culture in a way that it became super successful, but it was also seen maybe as a juvenile fantasy. Anime took off at the same time and it was filled with ninjas and now we live in an age where one of the best selling series of all time is Naruto.
What movies are you most excited about this year? Any personal favorites?
Rufus: I’m most excited to see Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the big screen. Also Five Element Ninjas is going to be great. I’m very much looking forward to the rarities like Seventeen Ninjas and the Shinobi no Mono films.
Samuel: Seventeen Ninja, Shinobi no Mono, and Shinobi no Mono 2. These are pretty realistic ninja films, rarely theatrically screened, and are actually incredible films. So for those that want a break from elemental powers and the supernatural these are the films for you!
Goran: Definitely Five Element Ninjas, which is arguable director Chang Cheh’s masterpiece – we got a nice looking 35mm print from Dan Halstead, who’s a programmer and print collector at Hollywood Theater in Portland. Also Duel to the Death, which features giant ninjas! – it was the first film from one of Hong Kong’s great action directors, Ching Siu-tung, who later went on to work on A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman II, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers.
What was the hardest movie to secure for screening?
Samuel: Seventeen Ninja!
Goran: We also tried hard to find Corey Yuen’s Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (1982), starring Hiroyuki Sanada and Conan Lee, but we had to give up in the end. One trail lead us to the Brussels Film Archive, but the print they had was in too poor of a condition to be screened.
Samuel: And speaking of films we didn’t get: Ninja Scroll. It was too expensive.
I cannot for the life of me guess the movie that is the “Super Special Secret Screening.” Can you drop us any more hints? Pretty please?
That’s why it’s called Super Special Secret Screening!
The full schedule of films can be found on Subway Cinema’s website here. I can’t wait to see all you New York ninja freaks this weekend and next! Count me in for Five Element Ninjas, Ninja Turtles, and Seventeen Ninja.
Any guesses as to what the secret screening will be?