Undefeatable – 1993 / Director: Godfrey Ho

Godfrey Ho is illogical in his work in a spectacular way before you even mention this film. He is infamous for his numerous ‘cut-and-paste’ ninja films which took unfinished or obscure martial arts films, and pretty much anything else including melodramas, and spliced into them Caucasian men in ninja suits running between scenes in their own intangential subplots. Crass commercialisation with his producer on those films ended up with something a lot more special; shift through the dull ones and you found he inadvertently (or purposely in some genius Dr Hyde moment)  created a fascinating collage effect that pokes and reveals in the material at hand. Instead of colours and pieces of newspaper however, his work was plastered with ninja fights, and unlike anything shown at the nearest art gallery, his work also enraptured his audience with men being kicked in the head. Undefeated, completely original material from Ho, is orbital and separate from any boundaries he had completely. Tasteless, lurid and with enough wooden acting to build a ship from the ride the action cheese waves is soaks in, it nonetheless takes all the straight-to-action films from the nineties, removes the arbitrary parts where the dullest people picked out generic dialogue from a grey hat and shot it with actors standing still for minutes, and refills the gaps with unexpected choices to say the least. Namely, psychodrama, a serial killer, illegal street fights and enough ocular trauma to have even horrified Lucio Fulci. It is cold shower material for people unprepared for it, even those in the fan club for Ho films like Ninja Terminator (1985), but it gets away with its material by crushing these obsessions of c-level martial arts cinema into a jaw dropping Neapolitan deck. It’s a ninety minute, Hong Kong-in-America horror punk song about a martial arts welding killer, as questionably empty as its lyrics and shaky in the vocal department, but compelling in its entirety and with a technically efficient bass line and a charmingly insane drummer keeping the film going.

And technically efficient is appropriate for Ho as, even in his worst work, his c- or d- level films have a quality that puts him above directors of trashy cinema. He is an auteur with some talent to his work, even if it’s borrowing the right material, in comparison to the slogs from other directors with cult popularity. In most cases, especially with Undefeatable, it’s that the martial arts choreography is actually good. It’s far from a Jackie Chan film, and usually consists of men in party good store ninja costumes doing back flips repeatedly, but is still a high bar to reach when you see how atrocious the choreography and the presentation of it can be in even multiplex releases. Sylvester Stallone’s ill-fated one night stand with Soviet montage techniques in The Expendables (2010) is a pitch perfect example of this, the party planet back flips winning out in hindsight to example like that. Fighting to pay for her younger sister’s collage fees, Cynthia Rothrock is Kristi Jones, accompanied by the hive-minded Dugtrio of three young Asian men who are her best friends and don’t go to college because their ‘IQs are too high’. On the other side of the spectrum of morality is Stingray, a death match fighter with a mommy complex who views his wife Anna as his mother and mistreats her horrifically. When she leaves, he snaps fully and goes out killing any woman remotely similar to her in dress and appearance, crossing paths, along with two policemen, with Kristi and those close to her. And yes, this is a lurid martial arts film that crosses domestic abuse, death matches, Patrick Bates by pound store Freudism psychology together into a pot and has no sense of good taste in not mixing all of this together and realising that they shouldn’t really work together.

While a bit older than her character is clearly supposed to be, Rothrock does well, a female martial arts star that could have matched the egotistical males of this genre of cinema toe-by-toe, but unfortunately hasn’t had as much attention in terms of her back catalogue as compared to even lesser known male stars like Mark Dacascos. The film is absurd, but the concept of suspension of one’s disbelief was designed for films like this. While art films can get away with being knowingly artificial if they desire, it’s a harder job of sustaining it for an action film as failure to do so leads to a bored viewer. No matter how illogical the setup and events seen are, they must make sense pace wise or tonally. Undefeatable is quite brisk for its length, befitting the punk song metaphor, and manages to make it glaring genre combinations work. Any tangents either connect to the central plot or add to its absurd tone. With a curly haired mullet and mad eyes, Stingray as a villain is suitable crazy in the completely unsubtle fashion, helped by the actor Don Niam’s stressed and peculiar intonations of his dialogue. The film is made up of the same police procedure and drama found in other stories, but the chaotic juggling of tonal plates makes the result much more interesting.

Ho as a director, even when he attaches his name to someone else’s work, channels the weirder and sleazier end of Hong Kong cinema, misanthropic if it wasn’t so garishly compelling and imaginative through ways most film directors would not make a film by. That may seem insulting to Ho, but I would not be surprised that even he – whatever his thoughts on his films now, as of last I’ve heard of him a teacher at a film school – would look back on them with surprise by the content or view it as a way of getting butts into cinema seats. That he manages to make this trashier aesthetic uniquely his and almost Dada-esque is an unexpected surprise, and if the latter choice of term is dangerously near contrarian pretentiousness and bound to wind up art critics, the terms irrationality and anti-art, part of Dada, are so imbued in these ridiculous erratic films of his like Undefeatable that he deserves a gold medal. That he made a cut-and-paste version of Undefeatable, his own creation fully, as well called Bloody Mary Killer for Hong Kong audiences with new, intangential subplots, which I want to see, shows how he pushed the material he had into more idiosyncratic areas than the per usual material from the same genre. And he was using seaside store ornaments to represent ninja artefacts in comparison to other films which had more money to work with. Undefeatable is one of the most distinct films of the early nineties wave of martial arts cinema. its end fight is infamous on YouTube, but contrary to popular view, it’s not the best worst one ever made, but one of the most memorably crackpot ones I’ve seen with a conclusion straight from Italian horror cinema. I would recommend the strong of mind who can take their fair share of the ludicrous, and can appreciate it qualities, to check the whole film out. While we did not cover Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and many of the best known martial art filmstars in existence in these reviews, I can say that I’ve added one of the martial art genre’s strangest offerings that stay within the realms of conventions rather than become something like Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991).

Tags: Crime, Cynthia Rothrock, Godfrey Ho, March-ial Arts Month, Martial Arts, Psychodrama, Weird