Figuring Out Godfrey Ho

“Maybe in the future, if I do another movie, I’ll pay more attention to the script and mise-en-scene so as to make a good film.”

Godfrey Ho

Is The Ninja Squad the worst film I’ve ever seen? Having just watched it again for a second time, I don’t think it can be. It is undoubtedly the worst-lit film I’ve ever seen, the most badly dubbed, among the most narratively incoherent. It definitely has some of the worst possible locations, its costumes are nothing short of laughable, and its score is erratic but uniformly awful. But it’s just too funny to be worst film I’ve ever seen. At times, I think it might even be genius.

To rewind a little, The Ninja Squad is a 1986 film by the infamous Hong Kong film-maker Godfrey Ho, starring fallen 60s/70s B-movie star Richard Harrison. It is one of literally dozens of martial arts Z-movies Ho directed during the 1980s, a feat he achieved using a “cut-and-paste technique” whereby he spliced segments of his films together to create new ones, then making a fruitless effort to dub the resulting monstrosity into coherence. Today, these astonishingly bad films are often found on two-for-one dual-sided DVD sets at knock-down price, like the one I possess containing The Ninja Squad and the similarly-themed Golden Ninja Warrior. Essentially, it’s four films on one disc, which sounds like good value, right? In fact, like a lot of people who have stumbled into Ho’s deranged world, I thoroughly recommend you get hold of a couple.

Why? Well, Ho’s films are virtually the definition of “so bad they’re good”; they don’t call him “the Ed Wood of Asia” for nothing. The sheer level of film-making on display in a film like The Ninja Squad is a struggle to describe. The first time you see the washed-out shots using only natural light, gawp at the day-glo ninjas who all wear headbands that say “ninja” on them, or hear the dialogue between a character dubbed by a faux-Texan and an Australian, you just laugh unstoppably, as anyone would. The second time you watch, you wonder if such a horrendous film could possibly have come about naturally… the quality of every conceivable aspect is so poor, the artlessness somehow so artful, that a part of you – however tiny – wonders if the whole affair isn’t some elaborately contrived satire.

Even if the more likely explanation is the truthful one, that Ho was just an incredibly terrible director working with a non-budget, the feeling that there’s something odd at work lingers. It’s fuelled by the facts of Ho’s sheer audacity, his willingness to do things that just aren’t done, his refusal to give up despite repeatedly displaying his inability to make films properly. It’s this bewildering feeling, on top of the hilarity, that I think us Ho fans enjoy. To repurpose and paraphrase a line I’d always liked from a review in an old copy of PC Gamer (I believe), through his films Ho doesn’t so much wallow in his own ineptitude as bask.

So if you want to feel the curious feeling I’ve had upon revisiting The Ninja Squad, and if you’re a fan of “so bad they’re good” films but haven’t yet taken a trip with Hong Kong’s strongest export in that genre, I honestly recommend you take a look at this, the equally infamous Ninja Terminator, or any number of the other ninja films. If you’re wondering what Godfrey Ho has been up to more recently, well that’s one of the reasons for that tiny suspicion that he’s a hidden genius, and also the final twist – he started teaching at the Hong Kong Film Academy.