DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Five Deadly Venoms

Saturday, 22 August 2009

The Five Deadly Venoms

Five Deadly Venoms (1978) dir. Chang Chen
Starring: Sheng Chiang, Philip Kwok, Feng Lu, Pai Wei, Meng Lo


The house of the Venoms is in turmoil! The master of the famous kung fu training school is dying and sensing a plot by his former students to steal some hidden treasure he sends his latest apprentice Yang Da to investigate. The identities of his former students are unknown, but one of them has killed the Naun family and stolen the master’s treasure.

The Five Venoms include:

Snake – a martial arts master who uses his two hands like a snake's striking head for one and a whipping tail as the other.
Toad – a strongman technique which renders the fighter impervious to fists, swords, spears and other weapons, but also highly vulnerable in one unknown weakspot
Gekko – a wall climbing technique which allow the master to fight from walls, ceilings defying gravity to his advantage
Scorpion – the deadliest of the Venom skills, which uses sweeping leg kicks to mimic the striking tail of the scorpion
Centipede – aka man of a thousands hands – a fight technique so fast which appears like a thousands hands fighting at once.

The film has actually very few action sequences, substituted by a complex Machiavellian whodonuit plotting the murderer's identity and theft of the secret treasure map. While the innocent youth Yang Da is our point of view into the world, the redeemed hero turns out to be Mr. He (aka Gekko) who is introduced as a slimy opportunist looking for the treasure but turns intoa heroic champion of the moral values and reputation of the House of Five Venoms.

The venoms do eventually fight each other but unfortunately the 70's-style action unfortunately shows its age. It’s a slower, more controlled and obvious choreographed staging – more like a dance than believable combat - but there’s the same elegance and beauty with the graceful martial arts movements.

Toad vs. Centipede fight which takes place in the street surrounded by onlookers is slow and obviously choreographed, but as the first fledged fight scene it’s a marvellous representation of classic Shaw Bros 70’s Kung Fu with just enough wire work and slow-motion to highlight the key beats of the fight.

Though lacking in the intense awe-inspiring stunt work of modern kung-fu cinema, ‘Five Deadly Venoms’ makes up for it with all the pastiche we expect from the genre.

Creative torture is part of the fun of 70s’ kung fu. At one point one of the suspects is stabbed in the nose with an iron knitting needle, thus piercing his brain and killing him. The Toad vs. Snake fight ends with Toad’s entrapment in ‘coat of a thousand needles’ – an glorier version of a medieval iron maiden - thus rendering him impotent from a hundred nail stabbings. Later he’s branded with a red hot metal chest plate. .

The fake facial hair, sideburns and hairpieces are unintentionally hilarious, obviously in some kind of virile attempt to be tougher and manlier. The ‘Shaw Vision’ anamorphic camera lenses are so conclave, whenever the camera pans it grossly distorts the image like a fishbowl. And we can't forget the bright red blood, the looped dialogue, aggressive grunting sounds and and those crash zooms!

And yes, that’s Philp Kwok – for HK action junkies the brilliant badass from John Woo’s Hard Boiled – as the redeemed Mr. He. Another reason to rediscover "Five Deadly Venoms" as an influential benchmark of Hong Kong action cinema. Enjoy.

"The Five Deadly Venoms" is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada

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