Five Deadly Venoms
Written by Chang Cheh
Directed by Chang Cheh
Hong Kong, 1978
Despite what great films have been reviewed in the column, few have, thus far, been privileged with a gift that may be only measured with time: contemporary cultural relevancy. By contemporary cultural relevancy it is meant that a given film continues to permeate the cultural landscape of the times, regardless of decade, whether it be to the timelessness of the story, its unforgettable nature, and its influence on various media in the following years. Chang Che’s most famous film, often deemed a ‘cult classic’, is Five Deadly Venoms, a picture that has been referenced countless times in other movies, television and music. Anybody remotely familiar with rap’s Wu Tang Clan knows the group has a particular fixation with said film. In fact, it would be a safe bet to say that among any Wu Tang Clan fans, more people are aware of Five Deadly Venoms‘ existence than those who have actually seen the movie.
The story commences with a young martial arts pupil, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), attending to his fatally sick master (Dick Wei). The latter is the head of the infamous House of Venoms, a clan which teaches its students some of the world’s most specific martial arts techniques, those which replicate, in some ways at least, the reflexes, power and agility of various animals. The House has caused ills in society and its head has, as his dying wish, a desire to see his name redeemed. Aware that among of his previous students, Scorpion (Sun Chien), Geiko (Kuo Chui), Centipede (Lu Feng), Toad (Lo Mang) and Snake (Wei Pei), some wish to steal a great treasure he left to the attendance of an old friend, the ageing master sends Yang Tieh to discover the identities of those Venoms which seek to do good, and join them in preventing the rest from further giving in to vice. The mission is complicated by the fact that Yang does not know who the Venoms are, by face or by name.
The introductory scene, in which the old teacher reveals what sort of techniques the individual Venoms have each mastered, is amusing and gripping. As the head sings the praises of his former followers, director Cheh gives the viewer some flashback moments of their training, with each fighter putting on quite the show. Granted, their skills are enhanced significantly by wire work as to make them appear as even more fantastic than they should be in reality, but the message is received loud and clear: these men are forces to be reckoned with. Young Tieh had therefore best watch out. To further accentuate the awe and mystery surrounding the Venoms, each dawns a superbly decorative mask representing which animal skill they have perfected. All of this lasts only a matter of a few minutes, but as setup it works handsomely in raising the stakes high enough for the viewer to comprehend the very large task asked of Tieh. When the hero finally ventures into the city streets where he is to locate his potential enemies and friends, there a sense that what follows will be thrilling. And yet, curiously enough, something happens along the way which derails that potential for excitement. By the film’s end, director Chang Cheh, while still providing a movie with its fair share of fun moments and surprising martial arts action, somehow never lives up to all the promise the setup gave the viewer.
For the most part, the issues lie with the structure of the story and how said structure makes use of its characters. There is the matter of the heist, the object of which are the riches the old school master said he had left with a friend. No problems there thus far, the Venoms will most likely use their cunning skills to acquire the bounty. What causes the quality of the story to deviate somewhat is that the Venoms must go under other guises in order not to be discovered (remember the foul reputation the House of Venoms has earned). That in of itself is fair enough and makes sense given the nature of the circumstances. However, it takes away to some degree the fun that could have been had with the Venoms running and hiding about, plotting and fighting against one another. The result is a movie in which the Venoms rarely revealing themselves, neither to each other or out in open spaces where exists the potential for combat. There is eventually some of that of course, especially in the final stages when all bets are off and the true rumble begins, but for the most part Chang Cheh is creating his own version of a police procedural with a mystery that never feels sufficiently important to retain interest. The master’s old friend is murdered early on by Snake and Centipede, working in unison, but failing to discover the location of the goods, they must then escape and eventually corrupt law enforcement officials in order to preserve their odds at striking gold. Scorpion shows up every now and then to speak with Snake, but not much else. Toad, of more virtuous character, is revealed early on and helps a police constable bring the other suspected Venoms to justice. At some point it should become rather obvious to anybody paying attention who the constable probably is, but the film somehow plays its cards as though it believes it has a real secret to keep, hoping that audiences won’t clue in.
It would be a stretch to say that such a plot spoils the fun, yet it feels like an odd way to introduce people to these great warriors. Apart from the very end, there are few moments when the Venoms truly impress with the skills which have earned them either high esteem or tremendous scorn. One wonders if there is possibly a previous, long lost 5 Venoms picture that tells the story of these characters in their truer, warrior state, with this film being a sequel of sorts. The film becomes so concerned with its plot of corruption and deceit that the character whom we thought would be the audience’s eyes and ears, Yang Tieh, gets totally lost in the shuffle. There are significant stretches of the movie when he utterly disappears, only to return near the end to combat the forces of evil alongside his newly acquainted brethren. If he was to become so unimportant in the middle section, could their not have been another way for the director to thrust the audience into the lives of the Venoms?
Luckily, the final act practically makes up for all of the previous missteps. The final combat sequence, when all the Venoms are revealed (even though in the case of one there really was no surprise at all) and Yang Tieh is back into the fold, the killers jump at each others throats in a fight that should mesmerize just about any movie buff who enjoys an expertly choreographed fight. It is a great finale, if only it had followed a more stimulating buildup. Special mention should also go to the strongest actor of the bunch, Lo Mang, who also appears in a few other of Chang Cheh’s movies (such as The Water Margin). There is a wonderful sense of youthful exuberance about him. Acting was not always the top priority in films of this ilk, but Mang always manages to bring a great sense of energy to his fun and oftentimes prideful character.
Whatever is argued in this review matters little in the grander scheme of things. The film long ago achieved its reputation in many circles, and not even always film buff circles. The film rarely lives up to the heights of its lofty status as a cult favourite, but do not let that entirely dissuade anyone from checking it out. There is at least a little bit of bite to this film, only that some patience is required for the venom to take effect.