Monday, May 30, 2011

Blast From the Past

Kawabunga Dudes! HANG TEN! The other day I recently revisited a film from my child hood. It is safe to say that this film was one of the things that helped re-enforce my interest in East Asian culture in those early days of infant uncertainty. I am of course talking about the 1993 martial arts epic, Surf Ninjas?!

Poster for the 1993 film Surf Ninjas

Yeah, yeah, I know, I know, I have some explaining to do. So what is this movie? Well for those of you who have never seen Surf Ninjas, I'll give you the rundown. Basically, there are these two surfer-dude brothers who live in California who seemingly have South East Asian backgrounds but curiously have a Caucasian father. By way of sporadic narration it is revealed to the viewer that these children are in fact princes of the fictitious nation of Patusan; a country that has been taken over by the evil Colenel Chi, a samurai played by Leslie Nielsen (wow. its hard to say that with a straight face). Because of these events the two brothers were sent away in infancy to California and raised by a sailor who was a friend of the king of Patusan. So basically these brothers realize their destiny and head to Patusan to free their people using martial arts, surfing and a Sega Game Gear that can tell the future! So there you have it, it all sounds quite ridiculous yes? Well it is. But as a child growing up in the 90's, this was the stuff of LEGEND! Surfers and ninjas and Game Gear, combined into one ass kicking force?! BEST MOVIE OF 1993!!!!

Ernie Reyes Jr. kicking some Colonel Chi henchman ass, in Surf Ninjas.

Looking back at Surf Ninjas now, with a wealth of genuine East Asian knowledge it's kind of like looking at a manifestation of how most of Hollywood, nay, the majority of North American movie going public of the nineties perceived East Asia to be. An archaic bunch of backward countries where people with bad teeth and ninjas dance around and fight each other with swords and a mystical fighting arts such as "Kung Fu" and "Karate", skills which nearly every Asian person has mastered from a young age. Alright so is this level of ignorance acceptable? Well now-a-days in the information age, probably not. But as far as the early 90's is concerned, I'm not really sure. We didn't have the internet in 1993 so we had to learn things from print sources and documentaries which we couldn't watch on demand. We humans are a lazy bunch, and reading takes time and effort. As a result the average Joe didn't know much about anything that they weren't especially interested in. Unless you were some sort of freaky genius person. So we got movies like Surf Ninjas and a bunch of extremely inaccurate portrayals of modern East Asian culture in other 90's martial arts films that are remembered for being both nostalgic and ridiculous. At least that's my theory.

The interesting thing about Surf Ninjas though is that they created a non-existent East Asian country as their main setting. According to the film Patusan is supposedly located somewhere in the Philippines but apparently is a separate country that more closely resembles Thailand, at least in aesthetics. In the movie they even go as far as to construct a fake "little Patusan" district in California.  

A map displaying the approximate location of Patusan.

So why not have this film take place in a real country? There are two reasons that I can think of. One, it would be pretty hard to suggest that two surfer-dudes be the long lost princes of a real country without creating an international incident. Two, the producers and writers had little to no working knowledge of East Asian history or culture and thus were forced to create an environment in which they could toss in anything that was remotely East Asian and dismiss any inaccuracies with the simple phrase, "Well that's how they do it in Patusan". But who really knows? and what's more; Who really cares?

Well you may be wondering,  do I hate this movie now? Well nothing is quite so simple. This film is dumb... really, really, dumb. But as a child something about it caught my imagination and led me to investigate East Asia in earnest. In fact I would honestly go as far as to say that films like this, such as Surf Ninjas, the Three Ninjas (The one where they go to Japan), Ninja Turtles and other such silliness where key elements in me taking my first Karate class, which was one of the major events that started me on the path of East Asian scholarship. Who knew? But how does the film hold up now? Well getting over the fact that it is a kids film, its extremely dated and silly. The fighting, however, is not all that bad, as it features the ass kicking stylings of both Ernie Reyes Sr. and Jr. both very accomplished martial artists. But be warned Rob Schneider plays a bizarre and annoying slacker guy and there are shameless game gear advertisements throughout the whole film. Yay 90's!



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