IN PROFILE Godfrey Ho
Considered the “Ed Wood of Hong Kong Cinema” by many a Z-movie aficionado, Godfrey Ho is a highly prolific director and screenwriter of improbable cult standing; best known for his ultra low-budget, ‘cut-and-paste’ style ninja movies of the 1980s.
Despite having over one-hundred films to his credit, Ho barely registers on the radar of most film lovers. But take a trip to the martial arts section of a second-hand DVD store and you’ll come across a litany of titles with his name on, or one of his many aliases: Godfrey Hall, Charles Lee, Tony Cheung, Bruce Lambert, Wallace Chan, Larry Hutton, Philip Fraser and Chi-mou Ho are but a few of the forty plus pseudonyms Ho has used over the years, making it impossible to know for certain as to the number of films he has actually directed. However, two factors that are almost always the same is the involvement of Ho’s production partner Joseph Lai – who at one point was rumoured to be yet another alias for Ho – and that the film will have the word ‘ninja’ in its title.
When Godfrey met Joseph
Ho was born in Hong Kong in 1948 and got his start in filmmaking at the Shaw Brothers Studio, Hong Kong’s foremost production company at the time. Along with a fellow budding young filmmaker by the name of John Woo, Ho worked as an assistant director for Chang Cheh during the early 1970s. His involvement during this early period included many seminal Cheh features: Young People (1972), The Water Margin (1972), Hellfighters Of The East (1973) and Blood Brothers (1973), among others.
Shortly after, Ho was allowed to helm his own projects, starting with low key actioners such as The Blazing Ninja (1973) – where he first met the aforementioned Lai, who was working as an associate producer – and Paris Killers (1974), a co-directing effort with Ting Hung Kuo, who would go on to work with a then up-and-coming Jackie Chan over the next few years.
After the commercial failure of Paris Killers, Ho left Shaw Brothers to pursue a new partnership with Lai and his company ASSO Asia in a bid to take advantage of the current popularity boom of Hong Kong action cinema. For the remainder of the decade, Ho directed a string of cheaply produced kung-fu movies in Korea, using a Korean cast and crew to save on costs. These Hong Kong knock-offs weren’t sold to Hong Kong itself, instead, they were designed solely for international distribution. This was made possible by the arrival of newly developed home video formats such as VHS, as well as some shrewd business decisions on the part of Lai and fellow producing partner Thomas Tang, who would set up his own competing production company Filmark. Ho would continue to have dealings with both Lai and Tang after this parting of ways.
As for the films themselves; they were period kung-fu pictures made to look Chinese in order to appeal to the ongoing international craving for all things Bruce Lee-esque. Competently put together yet artistically desultory works, such as Dynamite Shaolin Heroes (1977), Enter The Invincible Hero (1977), The Deadly Silver Ninja (1978), Dragon’s Snakefist (1979), Dragon’s Showdown (1980) Snake Strikes Back (1981) and Leopard Fist Ninja (1982), were churned out at an incredible rate (up to four a year) with almost a complete disregard for historical or cultural accuracy.
By the early to mid 1980s, Ho and Lai were in need of a change of strategy if they were to keep up with genre and industry developments. It was now common – not to mention financially viable – for films to have Caucasian cast members to increase American interest. Ho and Lai decided to follow suit and, under the banner of Lai’s new company IFD Films and Arts Limited (formed after his partnership ended with Tang), started to make more contemporary action films involving ninjas.
Disgusted and embarrassed by his involvement with Ho, Harrison subsequently retired from acting in the 1990s.
The work that Ho produced in the 1980s is easily his most infamous, endearing and inept. Casting American B-movie actor (and former associate from the Shaw Brothers years) Richard Harrison – who famously turned down an offer from Sergio Leone to star in A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), recommending Clint Eastwood instead – in the lead role, Ho directed numerous micro-budget sequences of fighting ninjas as well as expositional scenes with Harrison and other cast members. This would become the basis for Ho’s cut-and-paste period. Ho or Lai (neither chooses to take credit) re-edited and spliced their ninja footage with material from completely unrelated sources; usually from incomplete, obscure or unreleased films from other Asian countries such as the Philippines and Thailand. These films of varying genre – gangster films, comedies, romances, etc – were dubbed into English, as was the ninja footage, to create the end product. The results were hardly coherent but made financial sense; Ho and Lai had found a way to not only make several low-budget films for the price of one, but to keep American video rental stores well stocked with their produce.
Harrison was not happy with this approach. He had initially agreed to appear in a few of Ho’s films but now found himself to be the unwitting star of over twenty; all of which re-edited and badly spliced together with other films to extend the running time. For instance, films such as Ninja Terminator (1985), Ninja Champion (1986), Ninja Thunderbolt (1986), Ninja Dragon (1986), Ninja the Protector (1986) and The Ninja Squad (1986) would feature re-dubbed shots of Harrison speaking on the phone to another character originally from a completely different film in a half baked attempt to stitch the two differing plot-lines together. Disgusted and embarrassed by his involvement with Ho, Harrison subsequently retired from acting in the 1990s.
A lot of the music used in these ninja films was also ripped off from elsewhere. Early Pink Floyd, Wendy Carlos’ score for A Clockwork Orange (1971) and John Williams’ score for the Star Wars films were popular victims – the musical sting for Lai’s IFD logo at the start of each film was shamelessly pinched from ‘The Imperial March’, for example. The exact number of films made during this period cannot be determined due to nature of their construction, as well as the multiple title changes made for international markets. To make matters more confusing, Lai subsequently re-re-edited the ninja footage from many of Ho’s films again into a 32 episode television series entitled Ninja Myth.
From ninjas to kickboxers
Ho capped off his cut-and-paste period with a short-lived but nonetheless prolific string of films involving kickboxers instead of ninjas; probably to capitalise on the success of newly emerging martial arts talent such as Jean-Claude Van Damme. Ho and Lai used their same old movie splicing tricks for titles such as Kickboxer The Champion (1991), Little Kickboxer (1992), Robo-Kickboxer (1992), Kickboxer From Hell (1992) and Kickboxer Against The Odds (1992), but their financial success in this arena was starting to dwindle.
As a result, Ho returned to directing legitimate, full-length features for the remainder of the ‘90s. Moving away from IFD briefly, Ho made Lethal Panther (1990), a Nikita (1990) inspired action flick about female assassins; it was followed by a sequel in 1993. Ho diversified further by making Laboratory Of The Devil (1992), an unofficial sequel/remake to Mou Tun Fei’s positively horrific Men Behind The Sun (1988); a film based on the atrocities carried out by Japan’s Unit 731 during the Second World War. Met with minor critical success, Ho was commissioned to do a sequel: Maruta 3: Destroy All Evidence (1994). Ho made a few more legitimate features, including Undefeatable (1993) and Mr. X (1995), before retiring from filmmaking after the completion of what would be his final film, Manhattan Chase (2000). After a prolific and unconventional career in filmmaking, he now teaches his craft to others at the Hong Kong Film Academy.
In recent years, Godfrey Ho has become somewhat of a cult icon despite being a shamelessly commercial filmmaker, or at least trying to be. Due to the nonsensical, bricolage nature of his work, Ho’s cinema is pure bathos; unintentionally hilarious and hopeless in its attempts to appeal to western culture, something which in turn appeals to connoisseurs of the weird, wonderful and downright bizarre nooks and crannies of the celluloid world. As a result, Ho has unwittingly created some of the best worst films ever made, and will continue to find a loyal audience; but not quite the audience he originally had in mind.
2000 Manhattan Chase
1995 Mr X.
1994 Maruta 3: Destroy All Evidence
1993 Undefeatable | Lethal Extortion
1992 Laboratory Of The Devil | Kickboxer From Hell | Robo-Kickboxer: Power Of Justice
1991 Kickboxer The Champion
1990 Lethal Panther | Ninja Empire
1989 Full Metal Ninja | Zombie Vs. Ninja
1988 Rage Of Ninja | Diamond Ninja Force | Robo-Vampire
1987 Ninja Death Squad | Ninja In Action
1986 The Ninja Squad | Ninja The Protector | Ninja Dragon | Golden Ninja Warrior
1985 Ninja Terminator | Ninja Champion
1984 Ninja Thunderbolt | Revenge Of The Drunken Master
1982 Fist Of Golden Monkey | Leopard Fist Ninja
1981 Rage Of The Dragon | Snake Strikes Back
1980 Dragon’s Showdown | Shaolin Fist Fighter
1979 Dragon’s Snakefist | Golden Dragon, Silver Snake
1978 The Deadly Silver Ninja
1977 Enter The Invincible Hero | Dynamite Shaolin Heroes
1974 Paris Killers
1973 The Blazing Ninja
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