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Godfrey Ho - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2009

Films directed by Godfrey Ho on (re)Search my Trash

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If by the mention of the name Godfrey Ho, you think first and foremost of these terribly made ninja films starring Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here], you can't really be blamed because he made tons of those, which were actually cut-and-paste jobs, combining existing Asian movies (some but not all of them unreleased) with new sloppily made ninja footage starring mainly Caucasian actors. On the basis of these films, Ho was once dubbed as the Asian Ed Wood [Ed Wood bio - click here], which does injustice to both men, as while Ho was clearly more talented than Wood in terms of craftmanship, he certainly lacked Wood's enthusiasm for filmmaking (and a few other things).

Truth is, Ho is quite a talented action filmmaker if one lets him, and to blame the lack of quality of his cut-and-paste ninja jobs solely on him actually shows little more than ignorance towards other aspects of commercial filmmaking, like budgeting, editing, producing, marketing and the like, all things that are usually outside of the director's responsibility, and if you like Ho want your film to be a commercial success rather than an artistic masterpiece, you leave these aspects to those who are supposed to know better, for better or worse. And fact is, despite their shoddy looks, these ninja movies have become international successes.

Besides all that, Ho has proven himself to be quite capable a director away from his cut-and-paste jobs, and has turned in quite a few cool action flicks - but more about that later ...


One important note before I pen the man's life story though. The biographical information about Ho available is sketchy at best, and in biography pieces about him, hard facts are often clouded by the writers' opinions, so much so that in some articles, rumours and made up stories vastly outweigh actual facts. It's not made any easier by the fact that in the few interviews on hand (I didn't actually speak to the man himself, maybe another day though ...), Ho sometimes contradicts himself from interview to interview, sometimes even in the same interview, which I blame not so much on him trying to conceal something but on a bit of a hazy memory and the simple fact that it is impossible to remember sometimes obscure facts about all of the 100+ films he has made during his hectic career. Still, it doesn't help my research, nor do the endless number of pseudonyms which he used or which were forced upon him, names like Robert Young, Godfrey Hall, or Joe Livingstone, to name just a few.

That all said, this article will probably not be the definitive biographical account of the life and times of Godfrey Ho, this still remains to be written, but an I hope valiant attempt to bring the diffuse facts about him into order ...



Early Life, Early Career

Born Ho Chi Kueng in 1948 in Hong Kong, Godfey Ho was always fascinated by films, so he entered filmschool at age 17, but back then he studied acting rather than behind-the-camera work. Eventually, he went to Canada to study film, but insufficient knowledge of English or French brought him back to Hong Kong rather quickly.

In the 1960's, Ho apparently worked as a bit player and a low-rank technician on several long-forgotten movies before he hooked up with legendary production company Shaw Brothers. Once there, he hooked up with scriptwriting powerhouse Ni Kuang, and did lots of (uncredited) writing for him. Ho quickly rose up in the ranks though, and eventually he became the assistant director of Hong Kong action icon Chang Cheh - for whom Ni Kuang wrote quite regularly by the way - in the early 1970's, and remained with him pretty much until he started a full-fledged directing career of his own.

During their time together, Ho worked on quite a few of Chang Cheh's seminal films, like Boxer from Shantung (1972, Chang Cheh, Pao Hsueh Li), Water Margin (1972, Chang Cheh, Pao Hsueh Li, Wu Ma) and Blood Brothers (1973, Chang Cheh). On several of these films he shared responsibilities with a young John Woo - whose later career would differ considerably from Godfrey Ho's, as Woo always was a kind of visionary while Ho never aspired to be anything else than a craftsman.


Of special interest among Ho's films with Chang Cheh might be Marco Polo (1975), especially since it was his first encounter with Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here], a man who would be of quite some importance later in Ho's career ...



Going to Korea


Godfrey Ho directed - or rather co-directed, together with Kuo Ting Hung - his first film in 1974, when he was still assistant director to Chang Cheh. The film in question, Paris Killers, was a cheap production which was shot in Paris mainly to boost production values, and for which Ho and his partners raised the money themselves just to make the thing happening. Unfortunately, back then, Ho and his partners did not know the first thing about the distribution side of the film business, so they only managed to sell the movie to a few markets before it disappeared.


Even early on in his directorial career, Godfrey Ho had no delusions about his greatness as a director, and he also was down-to-earth enough to learn from the failure of his first film and grasp the importance of distribution deals and similar technicalities. Also, after the split from Shaw Brothers, Ho knew exactly what he could and couldn't do, and his time with Chang Cheh certainly gave him plenty of training in the action genre.

So, when Ho wanted to become a full-fledged director, he wasn't aiming too high in terms of quality movies but hooked up with Asso Asia, a distribution company owned by Joseph Lai and Tomas Tang, and they offered him to direct a string of low budget martial arts films in Korea, films made with a Korean cast and crew and co-directed by Korean directors that would nevertheless deal with Chinese themes and would be made to look Chinese. The thought behind this was that Hong Kong films back then were popular worldwide, and with the fledgling home video industry there was a new market right around the corner - yet these films back then could be produced lots cheaper in Korea. Now of course, mock-Hong Kong movies would not have sold very well in Hong Kong itself, so Asso Asia (and its follow-up organisations, Joseph Lai's IFD Films & Arts and Tomas Tang's Filmark, which both took over parts of Ho's Korean output after Lai and Tang parted ways) hardly ever distributed these films domestically and aimed for international deals - and quite successfully so, I might add.



Godfrey Ho's Korean movies - films like Enter the Invincible Hero (1977), Dragon, the Young Master (1978), Golden Dragon, Silver Snake (1979), Fury at Shaolin Temple/Raiders of Shaolin Kung Fu (1979), Magnificent Wonderman (1979), Dragon, the Hero/Dragon on Fire (1979), Dragon's Showdown (1980), Snake Strikes Back (1981), The Grandmaster of Shaolin Kung Fu (1981), Bruce Lee's Ways of Kung Fu (1982), Raiders of Buddhist Kung Fu (1982), Incredible Shaolin Thunderkick (1982), Martial Monks of Shaolin Temple (1982), Secret Ninja, Roaring Tiger (1982), Leopard Fist Ninja (1982), Fist of Golden Monkey (1983), Champ Against Champ (1983) or Revenge of the Drunken Master (1984) - are all competently made period action films, but competently made in terms of craftmanship and considering their low budgets and hectic production schedules. In fact, Ho directed a whole lot more films in Korea than those mentioned here - the true number of which will probably never be determined - and he usually had a Korean co-director, who for some reason most of the time remained unmentioned.

Nowadays, these films are perhaps best known for their wild mix of genre mainstays (including the frequent use of ninjas for no apparent reason) and their total negligence of historical or even cultural contexts - though all these films are supposed to be period pieces set in China -, but at the same time they are also full of action, fast paced and to the point to remain entertaining - at least in a superficial sort of way.



Many of these films have Korean Bruce Lee-imitator Dragon Lee in the lead, but actually, these films keep the Bruce Lee-angle relatively low compared to brucesploitation pics from other studios. Another regular in Ho's Korean output was Korean Tae Kwon Do-star Hwang Jang Lee, a fixture in martial arts cinema at least since his appearances opposite Jackie Chan in Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978, Yuen Woo-Ping).


Thing is, in the early 1980's, the martial arts genre started to change, especially when production company Cannon proved you could turn a (sloppily made) martial arts movie with a mostly Caucasian cast into an international hit with their Enter the Ninja (1981, Menahem Golan) starring Franco Nero [Franco Nero bio - click here]. Now that got Godfrey Ho and the heads of IFD Films & Arts and Filmark thinking ...



Cut-and-Paste Ninjas


By the early-to-mid 1980's, the market for period martial arts flicks of the kind Godfrey Ho was making in Korea had rather dried up, so a new recipe was needed, and Ho quickly came up with an idea lifted directly from above-mentioned Enter the Ninja - to make contemporary ninja movies with Caucasian actors (or gweilos, as they are pejoratively called in Hong Kong) in the leads. Now that might sound like an ambitious plan, but really it isn't: The gweilo actors did not have to know any martial arts because they would don ninja costumes including full facial masks in every fight and thus could easily be substituted by stuntmen, it also wasn't too important that they knew how to act because these films were action- and not character- or story-driven, so pretty much everyone Caucasian could be in these films (and in fact, Ho often hired pure amateurs, which sometimes painfully shows) - and to keep costs to a minimum, Ho's ninja films usually featured massive footage from other existing Asian films (some unfinished, some unreleased, some released around the world) that have no relation to the films' main plotlines but serve as perfect filling material to bring the films to feature length.

One has to understand here that Ho's ninja-films were never meant for domestic release, where gweilos playing ninjas must have seemed even more bizarre than Koreans pretending to be Chinese, but everywhere else in the world and especially in the West, the ninja films, despite their low budgets and schizophrenic storylines, soon became a fixture on the shelves of all video rentals ...


When Ho came up with his ninja-concept, Asso Asia, the company which had sent him to Korea, was no more, but its two bosses, Joseph Lai and Tomas Tang had each set up their own production outfit, IFD Films & Arts and Filmark, respectively. Godfrey Ho remained loyal to both men though, and thus he sold his idea to both of them.

With the lack of a complete and precise filmography of Godfrey Ho, it's impossible to say which of the producers was the first to make a cut-and-paste ninja movie on Ho's idea, but it was definitely IFD Films & Arts that cut the bigger piece out of the ninja pie, simply because it had something Filmark didn't have or didn't want to afford: Star power.

In the mid-1980's, probably with Ninja Thunderbolt (1984), B-actor Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here] - who like Enter the Ninja's Franco Nero  [Franco Nero bio - click here] had a past in spaghetti Westerns - launched his career as a movie ninja, making dozens of ninja movies with Godfey Ho as well as with other directors at IFD Films & Arts. Now Harrison might not have been the greatest of actors, but he brought a certain dignity to his roles, and a certain professionalism to the making of these films that made him a good collaborator on these films. The more noteworthy of his ninja-movies were probably Ninja Terminator (1985), Ninja the Protector (1986), Diamond Ninja Force (1986), Ninja Dragon (1986), Ninja Squad (1987), Hitman the Cobra (1987) and Ninja: Silent Assassin/Black Ninja (1987).

In many of these he plays a character called Ninja Master Gordon, though these films have no direct narrative connection to one another. In later days, Richard Harrison claimed he was tricked by Ho and Joseph Lai into appearing in quite that many films because he had only ever signed on for one film. This is of course pretty much impossible given the big number of ninja movies he was in and his change of appearance, hairdo etc from one film to the next - but it might very well be the truth that thanks to running-time-stretching cut-and-paste techniques, more than one film could have been squeezed out of every so-called film Harrison had been making.


Another star - or at least better known actor - Godfrey Ho had at hand for his ninja films was Bruce Baron, who was in Ninja Champion (1985), Challenge of the Ninja (1986) and The Ultimate Ninja (1987) among others, but he didn't match Richard Harrison's charisma or drawing power, and he was much more difficult to work with, so he was never used as much as Harrison.


Black Adolphe Beni, who was in Ninja: Silent Assassin/Black Ninja (1987), was probably IFD Films & Arts' attempt to go blaxploitation. This black actor had been quite a star in his native Cameroon and all over Africa, but in the international market, his marquee value was rather limited ... yet Godfrey Ho managed to lure him over to Filmark as well to make Top Mission (1987).


Apart from Beni, Filmark also occasionally cast Stuart Smith, another of the more prominent names in IFD Films & Arts' stable of actors, for example in Ho's Ninja in the Killing Fields (1984), but in all, the company concentrated more on subject (this being ninja) than on names. Ho's more prominent ninja-films for Filmark were (to pick just a few) Tough Ninja the Shadow Warrior (1986), Shadow Killers Tiger Force (1986), Ninja Fantasy (1986), Ninja Phantom Heroes (1987), Ninja Extreme Weapons (1987), Ninja and the Warriors of Fire (1987), Empire of the Spiritual Ninja (1987), and Death Code: Ninja (1987) - and the trashy titles of these films usually do the movies justice ...


In respect to Filmark, it should maybe be noted that there are various rumours about its owner Tomas Tang, one of which claims Tomas Tang was actually an alias of Godfrey Ho, who used the alias to make films away from Joseph Lai and IFD Films & Arts, who had him under contract - which doesn't make too much sense though, because since Tomas Tang was the production partner of Joseph Lai in Asso Asia, Lai would either have noticed that this Tang is not the Tang he worked with back in the day, or if Ho was Tang all along, then Lai would have been the first to not be fooled by the Tang-alias. Other sources claim Tang was any number of men, whoever felt like being him, but fact is that someone died in a fire at the Filmark-office in 1992 who was identified as Tomas Tang. Maybe it's this somewhat (but not really) mysterious death that has sparked all the rumours in the first place ...


A few words to Ho's ninja films for both IFD Films & Arts and Filmark (which were mainly distinguishable by the presence or absence of Richard Harrison in the first place, and he was by far not in all IFD Films & Arts ninja movies): They are very bad, only very few of the actors can actually act (and Ho typically cast tourists or businessmen mainly on the basis of their white skin colour), their plots were badly conceived and often failed to make too much sense (though usually it was something about supreme ninja power), the quality of the fight scenes ranged from poor to just about average, the films' budgetary constraints were plainly visible, the ninja rituals and ninja code they featured were completely made up, and their depiction of ninja magic (like magically changing into ninja costumes or rendering oneself invisible) were ridiculous in the hilarious sense of the word. And then there were of course these ninja costumes: While usually, ninjas are portrayed in black, here they wear all colours of the rainbow - including, it should be pointed out, camouflage -, and in several, not all films though, they also wear headbands with the word ninja printed on them, just to avoid confusion. In all, these costumes just like something out of a cheap carneval store - which might exactly be what they are. Then there are of course those other films that are interwoven with the ninja plot: sometimes those are urban gangster and martial arts movies that somehow ring true with the ninja portions of the plot, as in Ninja Terminator for example, at other times though, these films have nothing whatsoever to do with ninjas, as in The Ultimate Ninja, which features a (probably Thai) revenge story that even at one point makes a shift of 20 years into the future while the ninja plot does not duplicate that shift. In another instance, Diamond Ninja Force, a horror film builds the backbone of the ninja footage, which only makes very little sense. In other instances, even dramas or women-in-prison movies were used to bring the films to feature length. It seems these films were stuffed with whatever other stuff was available on the market at any given moment, and only after buying was a story built around them to make the new films.


When saying Godfrey Ho's ninja-films are bad, one also has to admit they are hilarious - at least if you are a bad movie masochist just like I am, you can't help but loving them, even against better judgement. Their bad costumes, bad acting, absurd stories, schizophrenic appearance and whatnot have an almost hypnotic effect to them - you know it is bad, and yet you just can't turn your head away ...


It should be noted here that usually, the lack of (objective) quality of these films is usually blamed on Godfrey Ho and him alone - and certainly, part of the blame is his, but it should also be noted that both IFD Films & Arts and Filmark also employed other directors to make cut-and-paste movies at the time, and it's anything but certain that Ho had much influence on the editing of his films - one mustn't forget that Ho didn't consider himself an auteur but mainly a craftsman who couldn't care less about a director's cut and the like. It's not even clear that Ho had any influence on the choice of the films interwoven with his own material, or the choice of the costumes, and he certainly had no influence on the films' budgets (or lack thereof). Generally speaking, for him the films were just hack jobs to put bread on the table, and he was at least as able as the next man to make films under the rather poor circumstances his ninja films were made under - and eventually, he produced virtual gems of bad taste ...


Considering they were just made as action quickies for the video rental crowd, it's almost fascinating that many of Ho's ninja epics are still around and have been re-released on tape and DVD countless times over the years. Only the audience for these films has actually changed: It's no longer the undistinguishing action fan wanting a quick fix who watches these films but the cult crowd (or at least a certain segment thereof) that sees these films' qualities in their shortcomings and watches them for their absurdities and almost otherworldly depictions of life as we know it. And I'm pretty certain that at least in one instance, a scene from one of Godfrey Ho's ninja films, Ninja Terminator, has found its way into an Oscar winning (best screenplay) movie, Juno (2007, Jason Reitman): The scene in which Ninja Terminator's lead Richard Harrison [Richard Harrison bio - click here] makes a seminal phonecall from a Garfield-telephone is perfectly mirrored in the scene in which Juno as played by Ellen Page tries to get an appointment for her abortion via her hamburger-telephone. Now I have no clue if this was a conscious reference (nor do I know if my claim is an outright lie - at least it wasn't meant to be), and if I ever get to talk to director Reitman or screenwriter Diablo Cody, I doubt this question will be high up on my list - it's just a beautiful thought that elements of Ho's ninja oeuvre from the 1980's could have found their way into relatively highbrow and hip movies from the latter part of the 2000's ...


Of course, the ninja hype could not go on forever, and by the late 1980's it was actually already on the decline, which did not cause Ho and his employers at both IFD Films & Arts and Filmark to give up their wicked ways of making movies - and to be quite honest, why should it? Instead they just adapted their cut-and-paste techinques to other, not too different genres, with variable success, though rarely as financially rewarding as the ninja-series.

The one logical step was of course to adapt the ninja genre for the kiddie market with the Thunder Ninja Kids-series starting in 1990, a tactic that in itself is a bit of a rip-off of the Lucky Kids- and the Lucky Seven-series from the 1980's - not that Ho or his producers would have minded too much.


Then there were of course the kickboxer films: After ninjas had gone out of fashion, for one reason or another kickboxing had become incredibly popular especially in the West, the prime market of IFD Films & Arts and Filmark - and thus Godfrey Ho was making films like Kicking Buddha (1990), Kickboxer: The Fighter, the Winner (1991), Kickboxer King (1991), Robo-Kickboxer - Power of Justice (1991), Little Kickboxer (1992), Kickboxer from Hell (1992) and Kickboxer Against the Odds (1992) for his employers. He also tried his hands on superhero cinema with the unfortunately rather obscure Catman in Lethal Track (1990) and Catman in Boxer's Blow (1993). All these films were done in the cut-and-paste tradition of the ninja series, as mentioned above and are about just as enjoyable (in a good or a bad way, you decide!).


Ho's best (funniest) non-ninja cut-and-paste flick though is Robo Vampire from 1988, for which the expression film is almost too small a word - it's an experience. To give you an idea about the very weird quality of the film: It's a mix of RoboCop (1987, John McTiernan), a very serious film about a cop who has been turned into a robot, and Mr Vampire (1985, Ricky Lau), a pretty funny film about hopping corpses. Now these two genres don't go well together, as you can probably imagine, yet they were merged anyways, but not (as in other cases) because pre-existing material from another film necessitated the inclusion of certain plot elements into the movie, nope, the hopping corpse- and robot-cop-elements were all shot specifically for this movie, so the viewer is confronted with a police robot battling it out with the hopping dead on purpose. The obligatory pre-existing snippets spliced into this one by the way are from a Thai mercenary movie and are almost impossible to work alongside the newly shot footage. Now I have no idea what Godfrey Ho and whoever else were thinking when making/editing this movie, but the result is unlike everything you have ever seen - which is not exactly a good thing maybe, but a so-bad-it's-good thing.


Of course, the era of cut-and-paste movies had to come to an end eventually, for one because with the beginning of the 1990's, the audience perception of and expectations in Hong Kong movies had begun to shift, thanks to many high quality films produced there and distributed worldwide that differed significantly from the image of Hong Kong cinema created in the West by way too many inferior B-movies and cut-and-paste epics in the previous decade. Especially the high octane action movies by Godfrey Ho's former colleague John Woo which even impressed the arthouse crowd are worth a mention here. Also Hollywood had found out they could do bad martial arts movies starring Caucasian actors for the video rental crowd just as well (or just as badly) as their Hong Kong rivals, and they began to take over the market in the latter part of the 1980's. Plus, big budget Hollywood began targeting the undistinguishing action crowd, once prime consumer of Ho's cut-and-paste films, more and more from the 1990's onwards, with films that were not much better than Ho's, but cost about hundred times as much - but they also had a considerable marketing budget behind them.

All this eventually brought the production of Godfrey Ho's cut-and-paste movies to a grinding halt ... and given the overall poor quality and the amazing number he has made of them, it's probably best that way ...



Moving Up in Quality

Godfrey Ho must have foreseen the eventual decline of the cut-and-paste movies he was working on for quite some years, as even in 1989 and 1990, when he was still working on ninja movies on a massive scale, he made 3 films outside the genre (and away from both IFD Films & Arts and Filmark), the cop-movies Angel Enforcers (1989) and Princess Madam/Under Police Protection (1990) and the female assassin flick Lethal Panther/Deadly China Dolls (1990). All three movies are of course no works of art but formula movies of the girls with guns-variety, but they are well-conceived, well-written and are made out of one piece instead of several films hastily cobbled together.

Especially Lethal Panther is a pretty remarkable film inasmuch as it shows what a talented filmmaker Godfrey Ho can be given the opportunity. You see, Lethal Panther is not just a good film for someone who has spent the last five years making inferior ninja movies, Lethal Panther is a really good action film, it's incredibly well-paced, features a nice and involving storyline that even got heart, great action setpieces, and a light-footed directorial effort that's essentially flawless ... unfortunately, Godfrey Ho would never again reach such heights, but then again, Lethal Panther is really good.

In 1992, Godfrey Ho was hired to do a sequel to the notorious war torture movie Men Behind the Sun (1988, Mou Tun Fei), Men Behind the Sun 2: Laboratory of the Devil. Interestingly, Ho's film is not so much a sequel but a remake of the original Men Behind the Sun, even replicating that movies most gruesome special effects - many critics by the way claimed that Ho simply took the most gruesome scenes out of Men Behind the Sun and put them into his movie in his own cut-and-paste-style, but if you watch these films back to back you can clearly see this is not the case, all the effects sequences were newly (re-)staged. Interestingly, Ho's film, just like the original a torture porn about unspeakable Japanese atrocities in Manchuria turing World War II, won more acclaim from the critics and is widely considered the better film of the two - though that's not saying very much given the sensationalist style and questionable qualities of the first one.

That all said, Ho's work on Men Behind the Sun 2: Laboratory of the Devil was at least good enough to get him back for another installment, Men Behind the Sun 3: A Narrow Escape (1994), which is a direct sequel of the second film inasmuch as it shows Uni 731, the Japanese research team that was invovled in the most gruesome human experiments in the first two films, on the run, with a self-produced plague virus set free among them ...

Ho's Men Behind the Sun films were reasonable successes, but he didn't find himself nearly as at home in the torture porn genre as he did in the action genre, and thus when a fourth (totally unrelated) movie, Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, was made in 1995, the director of the original, Mou Tun Fei, was back in the director's chair. The film was rather a disappointment though.

After his Men Behind the Sun films, Ho returned to the action genre with Deadly Target/Fatal Target (1994) starring Yukari Oshima and The First Assignment (1995), two ok but less than special genre movies, but it was already in 1993, when the film Honour and Glory - filmed in between the two Men Behind the Sun movies - marked Godfrey Ho's first collaboration with Cynthia Rothrock, a former karate champ and multiple black belt bearer, and one of the very few Caucasian action stars who had their breakthroughs in Asia before making it (relatively) big in her native USA.

Given Rothrock's history in martial arts, it's hardly surprising that Honour and Glory is a cop movie of the martial arts variety, typical mediocre genre stuff (especially when compared to the outstanding Lethal Panther) - but successful enough, and obviously Rothrock and Ho got along well enough to work with each other again two more times over the years: Undefeatable (1993) was a rape.and.revenge movie of the martial arts variety, with Cynthia Rothrock of course playing the avenger, while in Manhattan Chase (2000), Rothrock - by 2000 definitely past her prime - plays a cop out for revenge.



Fade Out on a Bright Note


Manhattan Chase was Godfrey Ho's last movie as a director, and while it was ok, it wasn't one of his better ones and certainly not a fitting swansong for Ho - but despite retiring from filmmaking, he hasn't gone lost to the film world, quite the contrary, since the late 1990's, Ho has been teaching filmmaking at various Hong Kong organisations, most recently the Hong Kong Film Academy. Now this has been a point of ridicule for many mal-informed film critics and wannabe critics, who merely judge Ho by the quality of his ninja movies and are totally blind to the fact that Ho indeed was always a director who could get things done, no matter how poor the circumstances - and thus he is in my eyes more than able to teach aspiring directors the craft of filmmaking - not the art of filmmaking of course, but then again you can't teach how to create art, you only can teach a craft, and sometimes, under ideal circumstances (as was the case with afore-praised Lethal Panther), craft can evolve into something more ...


© by Mike Haberfelner

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