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Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘The Web of Death’ spins a web of delightful sin

Shaw Brothers Saturdays: ‘The Web of Death’ spins a web of delightful sin

The Web of Death

Directed by Chor Yuen

Written by Ni Kuang

Hong Kong, 1976

Is there value in creating a remake? The safe answer is a resounding no given how, unfortunately, too many of them fail to live up to expectations. In fact, the frequency with which remakes disappoint is high enough that said expectations have been lowered to the deepest depths of the earth. Whenever the word ‘remake’ is uttered by a studio executive, it is the cue for general film lovers and film bloggers to collectively groan in perfect synchronicity. However, the original question still stands: is there value in creating a remake? The true answer, one not enough film buffs consider entertaining, is yes, provided the filmmakers have something to add to the original material in a way that will improve upon it. In 1976, not quite a decade after Chiang Hung Hsu’s The Thundering Sword, Chor Yuen brought audiences The Web of Death, a direct remake the former.

Director Chor Yuen sets up the mythos surrounding the world’s ultimate weapon right off the bat in the opening scene, in which a sizable platoon of soldiers is confronted by a mysterious enemy, leader of the Five Venoms clan, carrying an immaculate cage with a large red spider bust decorating the top. The villain opens the cage, revealing glowing, roaring (!) tarantula which shoots a thick mist from what one assumes is its tiny mouth. Everyone is instantly caught in a vast web which electrocutes its victims. Fast forward many years later. The Five Venoms, while still highly regarded and feared, does not promote the same fearful image it once did. Its current leader (Wong Hap) is told of an upcoming gathering in the world of boxers by his trusted captains, among them the Snake leader (Lo Lieh). Five Venom chief is begged to release the Five Venom Spider (the tarantula from the opening scene) in order for the clan to reclaim its once unquestionable supremacy, but the chief refuses. Snake leader therefore opts to spread a wild rumour that the Spider has in fact been released onto the world, which consequently sends all other clans in a fit of panic, hoping to locate the weapon before its too late, incidentally revealing the its secret location. The school at Wudang Mountain sends off Mr. Fei (Yueh Hua) on that very quest, during which time he meets Hong Su Su (Cheng Li) who chooses to help Fei all the while preserving her identity as the Five Venom Chief’s daughter! Of course, the two slowly begin to fall in love while everybody scrambles to find the Spider.

So, an apparently insurmountable weapon is set loose onto the world with various factions, some good, others bad, on the hunt to retrieve it, all the while two young, good looking and highly skilled warriors from rival clans find love. Mr. Fei even has a brother, Yingjie (Wong Chung) who also goes on an expedition for the weapon but stumbles on Hong Su Su instead, who poisons him without realizing he is Mr. Fei’s brother. If that reads exactly like the plot synopsis of last week’s film, that is because, for all intents and purposes, it is the same plot, only that this film is titled The Web of Death and happens to be so much more engaging and accomplished. Everything, from the direction, set design, special effects, music, and acting is superior in Chor’s film than it was in Chiang’s, with the one criteria for which each film is equal in quality being the actress in the leading female role. The inimitable Chang Pei-pei impressed more than anything else in The Thundering Sword, and how could she have not done just that? She is one of the single best actresses to ever appear in a Shaw Brothers film. That being said, Cheng Li gives Chang a legitimate run for her money. Cheng Li is every bit as adept at playing her own role as a terrific bad ass who refuses to play second fiddle to anyone, save her father and new found love, Mr. Fei. Where Cheng Li may even be slightly surpass Chang Pei-pei is in the range of emotions and how she dials up said emotional beats. Pei-pei was great at being a fighter, at being smart, cunning, whereas Cheng Li can do all of that nearly as well but also appear as genuinely sweet when the moment calls for it, something Chang Pei-pei, for all her skills as a Shaw Brothers actress, was not necessarily the best at. As incredible as it may sound, the character of the leading lady in Web is arguably more complete than that of Sword, that is to say there are more dimensions to her character. Another brilliant twist is how, near the end, when Hong Su Su is accused of murdering an entire team of delivery men (who failed to safely transport the wounded Yingjie back home), she turns the tables with an unexpected bitterness so as to make everybody look like the fools instead of her meekly giving in to the pressure of the accusations.

Yueh Hua, one of the staple actors of the Shaw studio system, is always excellent at playing the emotional beats of his characters and his work in Web is no exception. One can believe him to be just as much a romantic lead as a great hero and warrior. His talents as an actor ensure that viewers will feel a degree of empathy for him. Lo Lieh, who is literally being mentioned in this column on a weekly basis, is very obviously having a wonderful time playing the lead villain of the piece. It is a brilliant testament to his range. In any given film he can be the hero, the villain or even an ambiguous mixture of light and dark. Interestingly enough, Wong Chung, who interprets the role Lo Lieh did nine years prior as the male lead’s brother ends up giving the superior performance. All these wonderfully energetic performances lend the film the necessary emotional resonance. Unlike with the previous film however, director Chor keeps the sappiness very much in check. The romance angle is absolutely present, but handled with much more tact this time around, making it easier to digest.

Web features a plethora of additional elements which make it a tremendously entertaining movie, occasionally dipping into unintentional comedy but never so much as to make the film appear as poor in taste, but rather endlessly shamelessly ambitious. For one, the ultimate weapon is a regular sized tarantula that, for one, emits a giant roar akin to a minotaur, and second, blows poisonous steam, electrically charged cob webs and deadly sparks. The cherry on top of the icing is that whenever a character carrying the cage with the Spider approaches, a strange psychedelic, synthesized siren plays continuously on loop. If that is not simultaneously the weirdest, most implausible, funniest but effectively creepy idea for an ‘ultimate weapon’, then what is? It makes no sense because it is so weird, yet precisely because it is so weird, it becomes amazing.

Mention of the Spider’s otherworldly abilities leads to the mention of the film’s fantastic look and effects. Few Shaw Brothers films invest as much effort in the special effects. Some monumental efforts were required in order to make the world the story is set in and the action appear as large scale as possible. The sets are all cleverly designed and look humungous, with special mention going to the secret lair of the Five Venoms clan, decorated with plenty of images and statuettes of red spiders, including a gigantic one in the centre of their conference room. The effects equally impress, with plenty of large, loud explosions, great spooky web designs, deliciously disgusting deaths (when the Spider bites, faces turn black with blood oozing out of every orifice) and, best of all, there is a set which features plenty of deadly traps…always a great way to win this Shaw Brothers fan’s heart. Chor Yuen and everyone involved with the design of the film clearly pulled out all the stops to make Web as good a wacky adventure it could be.

Virtually everything about Web sends it crashing through the believability barrier, even by Shaw standards. Rather than fall flat on its face, the film continues to impress with every passing scene. Its pace is excellent, the large scale action is exciting, the tonal balance between romance, thrills and horror is pitch perfect and it makes no apologies for the oddity that is the coveted deadly weapon everyone seeks. It is indeed peculiar, but also Shaw at their best.

-Edgar Chaput