The Weirdest Movie of 2021 Was Actually Made In 1984
New York Ninja is the discovery of the decade.
By 1984, actor and martial artist Jon Liu had already directed three movies, all of which were filmed guerrilla-style on the streets of France and Mexico as the term “low budget” implies that there was some money.
When it came time to make his kung-fu superhero action flick New York Ninja, Liu (also known as Liu Chungliang) was armed with $100 and not much of a script to work with.
They managed to make the movie (well, maybe not the ending — more on that later), but after their distributor, 21st Century, went bankrupt, it sat on a shelf for over thirty years — ironically well into the 21st century.
Enter Vinegar Syndrome, the boutique home video label known for bringing back cult, genre, and adult films that have been historically hard to see. A few years ago, they managed to get their hands on the eight hours of footage, but nothing else — no sound, no working script, no call sheets, nothing.
Most people would chalk it up as a loss. Not Vinegar Syndrome. These lovers of film are masters of restoration and resuscitation, but what about resurrection? Might as well try, right?
They finished the movie.
It took two years: a lot of lip reading, editing, and of course, replacing the audio by redubbing all of the lines and commissioning a brand new score by Detroit’s experimental group Voyag3r.
The project was headed by Kurtis M. Spieler, who is credited with re-direction, editing, and reconstructed screenplay.
The end result is something special.
In the opening minutes of the film, you quickly figure out what you are in for. John Liu also plays the main character (his voice is dubbed by Don “The Dragon” Wilson) and we meet him and his wife as they declare their love for each other and she tells him she’s pregnant (completely out of the blue, right in the middle of the street — we’re off to a good start).
We know that there’s no way she’ll last long. Sure enough, she is killed in the next scene by a group of street rats who attack any woman in their path.
Here’s where the movie surprises you. You (at least I did) expect the movie to become a vengeance tale. He’ll become the titular New York Ninja and seek out the men who murdered his wife, right?
Not exactly. Instead, he focuses on the larger problem at hand — the countless gangs of rapists, killers, muggers, and thieves that sprawl across New York City¹. He becomes the New York Ninja to bring down the bad guys and as a result, becomes a pseudo-superhero of sorts. He’s loved by the masses (they begin to wear “I ❤ NY NINJA” memorabilia) and he saves countless bystanders.
His heroics even lead him to bring down the Plutonium Killer, a villain whose name is his coolest feature. Unfortunately, it falls apart a bit before the ending of the film. Literally. “The ending doesn’t feel like it was ever finished,” said Spieler. Luckily, it’s more than fun until then.²
The work that the folks at Vinegar Syndrome have done to save this film is borderline miraculous. It’s an honest to god labor of love — you can really feel that the people behind this project believed in it. They always do excellent work restoring original film prints for home video, but they go above and beyond here. During my at-home screening of the Blu-ray, someone in the peanut gallery (my girlfriend) asked, “Did they refilm anything? Because this looks like it was filmed yesterday!” It really does. (The answer: No. They considered it, but decided to work with what they had. Spieler said “I asked myself, ‘If my job was to have been an editor in the 1980s, what would I have done?’”)
Aside from the gorgeous restoration, this movie screams 1984. Liu goes full guerrilla-style here, filming on the streets of New York. And this isn’t the Disney-fied New York City that tourists know and love today: it’s dirty, Pre-Giuliani, old New York. It’s graffiti-covered. Liu films scenes of women being attacked and cars being flipped over right in the middle of the street and the New Yorkers walking by don’t even flinch. They don’t even look up. They just keep on walking.
Add in the synth-heavy score and some of the zaniest 80s clothes and hair you’ll ever see, and it’s truly a time capsule brought to life by the team at Vinegar Syndrome.
This project launched their new sub-division Vinegar Syndrome Pictures, whose resources are dedicated to the production and distribution of feature films. Basically, they’re making their own movies!
We can’t expect everything they do to be akin to turning water into wine, but that doesn’t make this news any less exciting. They’ve proven their commitment to film in their decade of existence in the home video realm and have truly outdone themselves with the effort and accomplishment synonymous with New York Ninja. They’ve set a hell of a precedent — fans of genre cinema need to keep their eyes on Vinegar Syndrome if they aren’t already.
¹They’re all dressed up in the goofiest outfits you’ve ever seen. They’re comprised of clown makeup, plastic masks, silly wardrobes, and sometimes even roller skates. There’s no doubt that Liu saw 1979’s The Warriors.
²I’m so jealous of audiences who got to experience its fall 2021 festival run in person. I’m sure it murders in front of a full house. I’m hoping the unofficial tour of a 35mm print comes somewhere near me.