Sneaky ninjas, revenge by bear trap, blowtorches to the face, Skeletor, professional wrestlers, more ninjas, lady ninjas, avengers, woman revengers, and lady avengers…Welcome to the world of Taiwan Black Movies. Completely forgotten until director Hou Chi-jan rediscovered a cache of them in the Taipei Film Archives and made his documentary, Taiwan Black Movies (2005), this is the flip side of the new Taiwanese cinema where adorable romantic comedies like You Are the Apple of My Eye and When a Wolf Falls in Love With a Sheep dominate. This is the dark side, the rough stuff, the kind of movie you don’t bring home to mama.
Director Tsai Yang-ming accidentally kicked off the black movie craze back in 1979 when he made Never Too Late to Repent (aka The First Error Step), a movie starring Ma Sha which was based on a book Ma Sha wrote about serving 15 years in prison for killing a customer in the whore house where he grew up. Audiences were electrified. Suddenly no one was buying tickets to flying swordsmen movies or nicey-nice romances and everyone wanted to see tales of crime, ripped from the headlines and served up with big bloody helpings of sex and violence. Taiwanese directors obliged. Over the next five years they made 117 exploitation films that became known as the Taiwanese Black Movies.
But these weren’t just mindless exploitation fun (although there was plenty of that). The Black Movies were also about social issues like lax rape laws, political unrest, the Cultural Revolution, and drug addiction. The government wasn’t having it. In 1983 they shut down production of black movies and destroyed all the prints they could find, although they saved some copies to show to filmmakers as an example of what NOT to do. That’s why our line-up is filled mostly with digital projections: 35mm prints of these movies do not exist. They were purged.
And they’re not all about social issues. For every stark, politically charged film like Never Too Late to Repent (1979) we’ve got a bizarro-tron ninja epic like A Life of Ninja (1983, and the sole 35mm print in this line-up). And for every rape revenge Lady Avenger (1981) we’ve got a loopy, surreal Challenge of the Lady Ninja (1982). Both of the nuttier ninja films were made by Lee Tso-nam, one of Chinese cinema’s exploitation kings who also made Lunatic Frog Woman (1980) and Killing in the Nude (1984). But even with his bizarre sense of story and addiction to ninjas, Lee Tso-nam dragged his political past behind him. Born into a family of Nationalists, they all fled China for Taiwan to escape persecution.
It’s not often that you get to see something you’ve never seen before, and here is a whole filmic tradition that was completely forgotten until a few years ago. Even better it’s a filmic tradition where the focus is on revenge, sex, gangsters, ninjas, and people getting stabbed to death with icicles. So settle in, pop open your six pack, and get ready to see an entire country’s wild n’wooly exploitation cinema unspool right before your eyes.