Chess Boxing vs. 5 Elements in above-average kung fu tale
NINJA CHECKMATE (1979) is better known as THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING, a more appropriate title given the absence of any actual ninjas from the film. Produced and directed by Taiwanese-based master kung fu filmmaker Joseph Kuo, CHECKMATE ranks with the best of his work (BORN INVINCIBLE, 7 GRANDMASTERS) in telling a simple concise story and peopling it with some of the best fighting stars at Kuo's disposal. Lee Yi Min stars along with Kuo regulars Jack Long (aka Lung Sai Gar) and Mark Long (aka Lung Kwan Wu), while the venerable Simon Yuen (DRUNKEN MASTER) makes an appearance as well. Mark Long plays the feared "Ghost-Faced Killer," a name later appropriated by the rap group, Wu Tang Clan, as part of their ongoing homage to classic kung fu films.
Lee Yi Min (SEVEN COMMANDMENTS OF KUNG FU) plays an eager young student seeking masters who will teach him enough kung fu to enable him to get revenge against the killer of his father. Lee has an amiable quality and ready smile and his character here is willing to withstand humiliation from senior students at the start of his training in order to gain access to the teachers who can help him. In addition to fighting skills, he brings acrobatic and gymnastic skills to the role and his transformation from eager novice to skilled fighter is believably portrayed.
Lee's first real teacher is the cook at the school where he apprentices. Played by Simon Yuen, the cook shows how food preparation leads to development of strength and agility. Lee's next teacher is Jack Long, a chess master who insists on teaching Lee the fundamentals of Chinese chess before embarking on actual kung fu training. Lee is slow to catch on to the significance of this strategy but it eventually serves him in good stead in the final battle. Jack Long has a young daughter, played by Jeannie Chang, who helps persuade him to take Lee as his student.
Mark Long's Ghost-Faced Killer is an embittered ex-official who travels the Chinese countryside using his Five Elements kung fu to challenge and kill assorted retired kung fu masters who had once opposed him. The film is punctuated with several of these superbly-staged confrontations and tension is built up as the killer sets his sights on the chess master and seeks his whereabouts. The stage is eventually set for a final battle between Ghost-Faced Killer and the chess master and his prize student.
The fights are frequent and interspersed with a steady stream of clever and often humorous training sequences. Five Elements Kung Fu is a fascinating concept and involves strategies voiced in such phrases as "earth absorbs water" and "gold cuts wood." The two Longs were both top-notch kung fu performers and are always thrilling to watch, as is the underrated Lee Yi Min.
The film is aided considerably by excellent cinematography and use of small, well-appointed sets and outdoor locations in the Taiwanese countryside. In addition, the lovely and evocative original Chinese music score is retained on the English-dubbed soundtrack. This film was very popular among kung fu fans in New York when it played at theaters on 42nd Street during the heyday of the kung fu genre some 20-odd years ago. Its current availability on VHS and DVD ensures its rediscovery by legions of enthusiastic new fans in the years ahead.
13 of 13 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?