The color of the film is limited to dark and reds, with a few toxic yellows and oranges in between. Orientalism abounds at the start where we are ushered into a gang's den. An old man is tattooing a toughie who does not pretend at all, not even for the sake of machismo, about the painful process of having a design grandly embossed on his body. The tattooer also does not pretend that he is administering a painless procedure. He, in fact, seems to push the instrument with such violence that we twitch as he communicates to his client the true meaning of pain. The gang leader, of course, does not like this and confronts the old man.
The old man is scared about the violent threat from the guy at the receiving end of the needle and ink who obviously does not relish the pricking he is getting. This is no Tanizaki universe, where pain gives birth to beauty. This is simply badland, and the goons are helplessly bad. But the old man is given a chance to tell his story, about how years ago they came. Like the most powerful of evils, they are the "Unnameable." Name them and they come.
Then comes the opening scene worthy of opening scenes. From the wall materialize beings whose presences are not felt until heads roll, hands swing freely off the torso, and bloods splatter the black walls. Sometimes, we see the black-hooded form. Sometimes, we see them gracefully swinging swords, but most of the time they are just shadows with the sharpness of scythes and the efficiency of death. They are killers and they are Ninja Assassins.
If you hear thundering and threatening music in your head as you read those words, "Ninja Assassins," well, it's only fitting. Their comeback is terribly impressive. It is as if they have not left at all. They are the Gloria Swanson/Norma Desmond of martial arts. They are camp and cute; glorious and gory. They have pedigree, and popularity the second time around is never far from sight.
When was the last time the big screen took them, the ninjas, seriously? That was a long time ago. Before the advent of Ninja Assassin, the ninjas were already in danger of being mere footnotes in history books about feudal Japan. They are not even popular choices of cosplayers (or those who have transformed costuming into discourses and fetish and fashion). But all this will change, I believe.
The ninjas are the new kids on the block. They are back. They are damn serious about themselves.
This is perhaps the secret of the impact of this film from the Wachowski Brothers. The producers are also the same guys behind The Matrix films, and that may be another secret of this film Ninja Assassin.
Those are the secrets. Then there are the revelations: Sho Kosugi, the Ninja man himself; and Rain, the Korean pop superstar.
Kosugi plays Ozuno, the head of the clan and the master of all ninjas. Kosugi is not only an actor here. His filmography is the sacred ground on which the writers—Matthew Sand and J. Michael Stracynski—tread. Listen to these titles: Enter the Ninja; Revenge of the Ninja; and Ninja III: The Domination. In fact, the first two films are known as Ninja I and II, respectively. There were even more ninja films, and Sho Kosugi is the star in all of them.
Do people still recall Enter the Ninja? Perhaps not anymore. We should remember this film: the film was shot in the Philippines, with Filipino actors like Subas Herrero and Jonee Gamboa playing supporting but important roles. The latter played a Japanese.
By the time Kosugi made Nine Deaths of the Ninja, he was bound for cultdom. By this time, people were divided into those who took ninja films seriously and almost had brain damage, and those who saw the light immediately and who decided that the only way to enjoy ninja films is, well, to enjoy them. And many did.
Sho Kosugi comes back indeed as Sho Kosugi in Ninja Assassin. There is no need to hide him behind a character. We need him as he is for gravitas as gravitas can be. The fans like him that way. He is no Bruce Lee, and that is never a problem.
The other open secret of the film is Rain. No Bruce Lee and sporting a name that can look good in Twitter and Facebook, Rain does have the Bruce Lee charm and grace in him. He has a sinewy body and those curves on his face look sharp enough to hook and unhook any heart.
If people are talking about the shirtless hunks who jump into the air to become werewolves, then people are also talking about the abs and the tight torso of Rain. That Rain can act is clear enough but that his body can deliver a performance (give and take some technical retouching that we do not know and may not be disclosed) is a discovery.
If there is gooey supernatural angst made human in New Moon, the film Ninja Assassin, for all its murderous intent, packs a lot a feeling. Strange but commendable for a film that somehow appears it just wants to enjoy itself. Go enjoy the vampires and the werewolves but, if you want fun that is more physical, watch Ninja Assassin. It does not have the baggage of Love. It has hints of Zen and sins.
IN PHOTO -- RAIN AS 'NINJA ASSASSIN': That Rain can act is clear enough but that his body can deliver a performance (give and take some technical retouching that we do not know and may not be disclosed) is a discovery.