Graham Reid | | 3 min read
The legend of the Tongan ninja is so legendary that most people know it. But for those who missed it -- possibly in the shower when it came knocking -- it goes like this: young Tongan boy Sione is flying between the small Pacific Islands with his dad on Finau Airlines when mischievous, spiteful Marvin (a "friend" but later his nemesis) cuts some wires and the plane crashes on to a small Pacific Island. A legend is born.
No, sorry, the legend comes after the next bit.
Sione's father has his legs eaten off by piranhas, and Sione and Marvin are taken in by a mysterious ninja cult. Sione becomes the famously legendary Tongan Ninja and Marvin (his nemesis you'll recall) becomes the infamously unlegendary Action Fighter. And about now a living legend is born.
But a legend staying on a small Pacific Island is no legend at all, it needs to be out there in the world. And so, from the director of Tongan Ninja comes ... ah, Tongan Ninja, a comedy cult classic befitting a living legend that will live long after all other living legends have died.
As they say: It's a film that will touch your heart ... after it's finished with your teeth, spleen and kneecaps. It's the film you didn't know you wanted to see, until you wanted to see it.
Tongan Ninja -- directed by Jason Stutter and filmed almost entirely in a few blocks around central Wellington -- is possibly one of the dumbest, funniest New Zealand films ever since ... well, possibly just ever.
First-time director Stutter co-wrote it with Jemaine Clement (one half of Flight of the Conchords) and it has been sold into France, Singapore, Thailand, Russia, South Africa and Turkey. But it only played in New Zealand in a few film festivals and short seasons, which made the DVD release in 2004 perhaps the most exciting DVD event since the last really exciting one.
As a parody of the badly dubbed kung fu films of the Seventies it works on every level. It has embarrassingly cheap "special effects", sudden and unexpected musical numbers, flashbacks and dream sequences, a fort guarded by an army of ninjas, and characters called Mr Big, Asian Sidekick and Knife Man.
It also has hilarious dialogue. When Tongan Ninja (played by Sam Manu but voiced by Clement who plays Action Fighter) is told that in New Zealand the weather can be like four seasons in one day he muses, "Wowee, your days must be long".
There is much subtle Pasifika humour alongside the broad-brush parody of Bruce Lee movies. It also looks like it was made on a budget of $8.50 -- and that is a compliment.
Tongan Ninja tells how the character from the famous comic book comes to New Zealand on instructions from his ninja master to help a family friend whose restaurant is being terrorised by the "So Called Syndicate". Tongan Ninja faces down various villains, a love interest in Miss Lee who is the daughter of the restaurant owner, and some appalling dialogue.
At the end he confronts his nemesis. Legendary stuff.
What elevates this above other cult classics is how knowing it is: the script sparkles with asides to other movies (the Tongan Mind Trick from Star Wars: A New Hope), reaches heights of absurdity (the Patio of Death), and has cleverly stupid overdubbing. It is worth turning the volume up just to hear the oddball asides in sequences when the army of ninjas jump Tongan Ninja.
There is a howlingly funny sequence when the boom mike is deliberately visible.
This is a film that knows exactly what it is doing -- and in the extra footage Andrew Adamson and Peter Jackson get in on the joke. Both say they loved the comic as kids and for Adamson it was the story he wanted to make but couldn't . . . so moved on to Shrek
Jackson says the same and had to undertake Lord of the Rings instead. Both speak highly of how difficult it is to get the dubbing as badly synchronised as it is in Tongan Ninja and how this has raised the bar for all other badly dubbed movies.
The cast also line up to, straightfaced, tell of their experiences making the movie. It adds to the cultish quality and is extremely funny in itself.
The movie credits are worthy of the Zucker Brothers -- which is a useful reference. Its nearest movie relative would be a film like Airplane: dumbness elevated to artful parody. Utterly stupid but extremely funny.
Remember the name Jason Stutter and if he drops by with beers and a script asking for money to make his next movie, be prepared to dig deep. He's a living legend, too.
As the tagline says, "If you only see one ninja movie this year with a Tongan in it ... "