Thursday, 8 September 2011

Five Venoms (1978)


Directed by Chang Cheh

The dying master of the feared Poison Clan sends his last disciple on a mission to find a former and now reclusive clan leader who hides the location to a vast treasure accrued over the years through the clans misdeeds. The young acolyte--trained in all five styles, but master of none--is ordered to persuade the old man to donate the treasure to charity to atone for the clans past transgressions. He's also assigned to locate the remaining five Poison Clan students whose identities and allegiances are all unknown and all of which are likely seeking the hidden cache of gold as well.

So begins Chang Cheh's iconic kung fu feature, one of the most famous Hong Kong martial arts exports of all time as well as an integral part of the cult of kung fu that exploded outside of Asia during the early 70s. Its penetration and influence on American pop culture is unprecedented for the genre. By the latter part of the decade, kung fu movies were moving towards a style that showcased intricately designed and choreographed movements in the form of extended fight sequences as well as lots of comedy; the latter of which is nowhere to be found in FIVE VENOMS. While Chang Cheh and I Kuang's script excelled in intrigue and well drawn characters, it fared less well in its action design during a time when the action was the major selling point. The choreography isn't bad, it's just not very creative only showing a spark of ingenuity intermittently.

The fight scenes are also few in number (the first fight doesn't occur till nearly 40 minutes in) while the script makes plenty of room for treachery, subterfuge and various scenes of torture that showcase a cavalcade of cruel instruments of pain and torment. It's these scenes that captivate opting as an interesting counter balance to the flying fists and feet. These various methods of torture include an Iron Maiden, an Iron Coat (a particularly vicious piece of equipment), brain piercing, throat ripping silver needles and hooks and an unusual means of suffocation. FIVE VENOMS accomplishes something that doesn't always happen in these movies and that's you grow to care about the people populating this world even amidst the comic book scenario and numerous fantastical ingredients.

The complexities of the plot makes up for whatever shortcomings the fight scenes lack. Mixing fantasy and elements of a crime picture, Chang Cheh's seminal film may begin as a kung fu picture, but soon segues into what is essentially a murder mystery surrounding the massacre of an entire family, the patriarch of which was a former Poison clan leader. It's no mystery to the audience as to why these innocents are butchered, what's not known is the identity of the one venom pupil (who still wears a mask) that's out for himself. It becomes known from the beginning that it's highly probable that not all of the enigmatic five are virtuous, but finding them is the first obstacle. In one of the more novel conceits borrowed from the Wuxia universe, the main characters all have elaborate costumes that signify who they are as well as said costumes possessing certain traits of their particular martial arts style.

While the Poison Clan is depicted as being an evil organization, the overall corruption and literal demoralization of society bears an even stronger presence here that is just as relevant in the all too real world we live in today. The Clan members, as wicked as they are, are almost cartoons compared with the perniciousness of the so called civic authorities. In the world of FIVE VENOMS no one is to be trusted with the law being the most contaminated. Everyone seemingly has a price and ultimately end up paying the ultimate price themselves when the stronger forces of evil no longer need their services. That the court, the constabulary and the judge can be bought, buy off others, cover up evidence on a whim and can be so cold and detached from the basest of human emotion is a terrifying notion all by itself. The literal lawlessness of the law is made all the more ironic by the placement of signs in the halls of the court that signify duty and honor.

The inherent fantasy and pseudo horror element is showcased immediately when we're introduced to the furious five and their phantasmagorical fighting styles. Both Tsao Hui Chi and Kung Mu To evoke a darkly comic book, Hammer Films style to the cinematography particularly in these early scenes where each of the venoms display the lethal proponents of their art--the Centipede is drenched in red, the Snake with a blue hue and so on and so on. A hint of fog is also intrinsic in devising a tone of horror in these shots and Chang Cheh is equally successful at creating an atmosphere of dread throughout the proceedings. That these five all possess a somewhat supernatural level of skill and power is another device borrowed from the Wuxia swordplays. Incidentally, the Poison Clan was also featured in a far more outlandish fashion in the wild, woolly and hugely entertaining Wuxia adventure THE WEB OF DEATH (1976) from respected director Chu Yuan.

While FIVE VENOMS was the first movie that formally introduced the martial arts film world to the group of actors that became known as "The Venoms", there are better movies to feature these actors/acrobats, but few with such an intriguing premise. From here, Kuo Chui always played the leader; Lo Mang was the quick tempered muscleman; Sun Chien fluctuated from hero to villain and was always the kicker of the bunch; Lu Feng was almost always the duplicitous villain; Chiang Sheng was the sidekick/prankster of the bunch and the most agile. Wei Pai (who played the snake) never fit in with the rest and left the studio shortly thereafter. Over the course of more than a dozen movies, these characteristics were altered and swapped from time to time between the years of 1978 and 1982 in a string of films that varied in quality, but were always enjoyable popcorn entertainment. Encapsulating mystery, horror, fantasy and kung fu excitement, FIVE VENOMS is a flawed, yet undeniably influential and much loved entry in the annals of Hong Kong cinema and a high point from the latter part of Chang Cheh's career.

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