[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
The general consensus around Kung Fu films is that the plot is secondary to everything else. While newer films in the genre have changed that perception, it was true for 95% of films in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. You typically didn’t sit down with a martial arts picture and expect to contemplate life and your place in it. There is still that extra 5%, though, and there is unanimously one film that old-school Kung Fu fans will point to The Five Venoms.
Produced by Shaw Brothers in 1978, The Five Venoms is the first of many films that would pair director Chang Cheh up with a group of actors known as “The Venom Mob.” While there were a few variations in that team over the course of 19 films (with a further 13 films featuring only one or two of the actors), one thing remained consistent with each film: the characters were typically anti-heroes or fighting for something beyond revenge.
In this debut movie, the plot revolves around the dying teacher of the Venom House revealing to his young student, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), that the skills he has been teaching are being used for evil deeds by his former disciples. For his final request, the teacher sends Tieh on a mission to warn an elderly scholar that the fortune he has amassed through nefarious means with the Venoms is in danger of being stolen along with his life. Problem is, the Venoms have all changed their identity, so Tieh doesn’t know exactly where to locate them.
It’s an intriguing bit of whodunit mixed in with martial arts goodness that creates a sometimes convoluted, but always engaging bit of mystery. It’s also probably the most complex plot Shaw Brothers would ever put to film, requiring the viewer to keep track of who’s who and decipher which character might be deceiving the others.
A lot of that doesn’t really matter, however, because the central theme to The Five Venoms is right in the title: the titular Venoms. Before passing, the teacher explains these skills to Tieh in a bit of exposition for the viewer. There is the eldest student, The Centipede (Lu Feng), a man with skills so fast, he has adopted the name “The Thousand Hands.” Up second is The Snake (Wei Pai), a treacherous man that uses both of his arms to attack in coordination with each other. Curiously, Wei Pai wouldn’t star in many other Venoms films, but that is neither here nor there.
Third, comes The Scorpion (Sun Chien), a deceptive and sneaky man that is known for his precise kicking ability. Fourth is The Lizard (Philip Kwok, credited as Kuo Chui), a swift and nimble fighter that can scale walls. Kwok would also appear in Tomorrow Never Dies some years later, so he is likely familiar to American audiences. Lastly, there is The Toad (Lo Meng), a man of immense physical strength with a steel-hard body that can deflect blades and spears.
Even without an in-depth plot tasking viewers with remembering character motivations, The Five Venoms was destined to be a hit because of its absurd cast. This is the type of stuff that would go on to define the 80s in Hong Kong Cinema. You have characters with very distinct personalities and skill sets that bring something unique to their on-screen brawls. Some of the characters here would even go on to inspire the likes of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat, reflected in combatants such as E. Honda, Scorpion, and Reptile.
Where things start to get interesting is with the inclusion of Tieh. Being a young student, he hasn’t quite mastered any particular Venoms style, but he possesses the knowledge of all five. When giving him his mission, Tieh’s master even mentions that he’ll need to team up with one of the other students to defeat the others. Which one can he trust, though? That’s the crux of most of the narrative, even if Tieh takes something of a backseat in this film.
There are a ton of twists in turns that occur throughout The Five Venoms that would be frustrating if it weren’t for the chemistry between the cast members. There are clear villains and heroes among the cast and they all portray that well. The Lizard and The Toad have an alliance and wish to stop their brothers from dragging the Venoms’ name through the mud while the others are very distrustful of each other and think only of themselves. This leads to interesting confrontations where certain Venoms are outmatched in some rock-paper-scissors-style battles.
You may have noticed that I’m not bringing up the fight scenes all that much, but they really don’t even encompass the majority of the runtime. The Five Venoms isn’t long at only 97 minutes, but there’s really only four extended fights during the course of the film. Director Chang Cheh is adept at scaling things up to the bombastic finale, but most of the brawls play out like typical Kung Fu fare from the 70s. It’s not bad by any means and is made more unique from the very gimmick of the film, but it’s probably the overall weakest aspect of the movie.
What’s surprising is that even with lackluster fights, The Five Venoms is still a great movie. It certainly has a slow beginning from frontloading a ton of exposition, but things never really let up in terms of pacing. The characters aren’t particularly deep, but you’ll constantly be trying to figure out which target is next and how far the nefarious Venoms will go to cover their tracks. There’s a particularly brutal scene around the one-hour mark where The Toad has his back scalded by hot metal and it’s just gruesome to watch.
Truly, the real surprise that I found when coming back to rewatch this is how enjoyable the film is even without constant fighting. It’s been a long time since I properly watched The Five Venoms, often preferring later films from the group due to their increased focus on action, but I’m starting to see that I was wrong. I certainly liked the movie, but it never truly stuck out to me simply because the subsequent movies had better production and snappier choreography. That sentiment still rings true, but the rapid-pacing of the plot here means not a second feels wasted.
It’s maybe a shame that films like Ten Tigers of Kwangtung and Kid With the Golden Arm didn’t retain that emphasis on story, because I mostly remember those for their brilliant action bits. It would be cool if each Venoms movie had a similar story, but then maybe that would rob The Five Venoms of what makes it so unique.
Either way, I’d absolutely recommend those without much knowledge of Hong Kong cinema check out The Five Venoms. It certainly has some of the same cheesy charms as other Kung Fu films, but it has a much more thought-out and relevant plot than anything you’re likely to see from the 70s. Remove all of the fisticuffs and it would still be great.
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