Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
Dir. Chang Cheh
Written by: Chang Cheh, Kuang Ni
Starring: Sheng Chiang, Chien Sun, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Meng Lo, Pai Wei, Feng Lu
Five Deadly Venoms is a classic of grindhouse cinema, one of the most memorable and celebrated martial arts films of the late 1970s, and one of the most seen classic kung fu films in the West. The movie comes relatively late into the body of work of the prolific and respected Hong Kong filmmaker, Chang Cheh, who had cut his teeth in the 1960s making popular Wuxia films before transitioning to the kung fu genre. Five Deadly Venoms shows the influence of the swords and spectacle aesthetic of the Wuxia tradition, and is an unusual blend of the two styles, featuring the period setting and unattainable physical feats of the Wuxia, as well as some gritty hand-to-hand combat set pieces. It features several great martial artists showcasing different styles of kung fu, as the five venoms all specialize in a different variant based on the attacking style of an animal. Plus it has an unusual mystery structure, making its plot a bit more engaging than the typical derivative kung fu films of the time. Taking these elements into consideration, it isn’t surprising that Five Deadly Venoms has risen above the pack of martial arts films of its time to become a midnight movie staple.
The film opens with aging Master Yuan (Feng Ku) explaining to his final pupil, Yang Tieh (Sheng), that he fears that the other pupils he taught in the past may have begun using the skills he taught them for evil rather than good. Yuan took on five pupils in his younger days and he taught each of them a specific, and devastating, style of kung fu. Yuan asks Tieh, who he was taught a hybrid of all five styles, to seek out the five masked pupils – Centipede (Feng), Snake (Chi), Scorpion (Chien), Lizard (Kwok), and Toad (Pai) – and to kill any who are using his teachings for the purposes of evil. Yuan gives Tieh a tip that the poison clan, as his former pupils are referred to, may be plotting a robbery and Tieh tracks them to the town where their target lives. Tieh has a difficult time identifying the venoms, as their identities are a closely guarded secret, but eventually they all come to the surface during a murder investigation. Tieh teams up with Lizard, who is now a police officer, and Toad, to try to take down Centipede and Snake, who have murdered an entire family in their search for a rumored treasure, but the identity of Scorpion remains a mystery until the very end.
That rudimentary plot synopsis doesn’t do justice to the fun mystery that’s at the core of Five Deadly Venoms. At least in my experience, its plot structure is fairly unique among the kung fu films of its time period. I can remember my first time watching the movie, thinking that it was actually a bit confusing, with a decent-at-best English language dub and a subpar image transfer making it difficult to pick up on some characters’ identities and some of the more nuanced plot points. Mistaken and double identities abound, with one character not revealing his true nature until immediately before the film’s climactic battle. The venoms are all intriguing characters, and their variated kung fu styles keep the action fresh and exciting throughout the film. In many kung fu films of the time, the plot was a thin construct only used to propel the action from one set piece to another, but in Five Deadly Venoms, action often takes a backseat to intrigue, as there is genuine mystery about the identity of several of the venoms, and as to the motivations that each character has regarding the hidden treasure that Centipede and Snake have killed to find. This deeper plot structure also helps to heighten character identification, and the scenes that feature the once-invulnerable Toad broken and tortured are genuinely emotionally moving, something that more run of the mill kung fu films can rarely claim. The richness of the plot and the characters makes Five Deadly Venoms a satisfying rewatch, and it’s likely the reason that I’ve returned to this film much more frequently than the other martial arts classics in my collection.
The other reason that I might return to Five Deadly Venoms more readily than the Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies in my collection is that it provides the perfect combination of action, campiness, and tradition that I learned to embrace when I was a teenager starting to discover Hong Kong martial arts films. I’ve written before about my experience raiding my friend’s father’s VHS collection and watching 1970s and 1980s kung fu and action movies that he had taped off of HBO when I would stay at their house. The movies that I discovered there were often the stereotypically campy kung fu classics, complete with incomplete or inaccurate English dubbing, bad editing, and grainy image quality. As such, I came to love these qualities about this subgenre of action films. I sought out movies that would check off these boxes, further coming to love the B-movie quality of the genre when I saw the way that Quentin Tarantino lovingly spun those seeming shortcomings into a perfect homage in Kill Bill. I started to see the cinematic interconnections in kung fu movies, Westerns, pulp detective movies and novels, and, to a lesser extent, comics. I started becoming aware of a “high culture”/”low culture” dichotomy and realizing that I had little interest in separating types of art from one another, as I realized that works of art, by nature, form a mesh that informs one another, as well as informing the tastes and viewing patterns of fans. I enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but its aspirational “artfulness” (and it is a beautiful, moving, and artful film) didn’t speak to me in the same way that the rawness of movies like Five Deadly Venoms did.
After the first couple of years of college, Five Deadly Venoms, along with the rest of the kung fu films in my collection, found itself seemingly permanently anchored to its place on the shelf. My last couple of years of college were dominated by Westerns and arthouse cinema, and my free time to watch movies for fun was greatly diminished. After dropping out of graduate school, I felt a need to disengage with movies almost entirely, experiencing an overload and a burn out that was overwhelming. After a year or two of really not enjoying watching movies, and going out of my way to find excuses not to see the newest releases or rewatch old favorites, I started allowing myself some indulgences. Five Deadly Venoms was one of the first of these forays back into really watching movies for pleasure that I can distinctly remember. One morning in early 2010, some 18 months after I had left graduate school and probably nearly a year after a DUI car crash that derailed my sense of self for several years, I found myself alone in my house, listening to one of my favorite albums, the undeniable debut album by the Wu-Tang Clan, Enter the Wu-Tang. I listened to the album a lot back then, and I still do, but for some reason on that morning, upon hearing the opening sample to “Da Mystery of Chessboxing,” which is partially culled from Five Deadly Venoms, I felt compelled to stop the music and dig up my old DVD copy of the movie and pop it in. I sat down on the floor of my room and watched it from beginning to end, remembering just how fun it could be to get lost in a great story for a couple of hours. It was a great experience and I can remember feeling a bit lighter after having watched a movie that I really enjoyed.
I’ve since watched Five Deadly Venoms a few times, and it doesn’t disappoint. Martial arts movies are a frequent pick-me-up for me, when I want to elevate my mood before heading to work for the evening, or when I want to totally push any thoughts of responsibility out of my head for a while. I stream a lot of stuff, but Five Deadly Venoms is the DVD most likely to come off of my shelf for a rewatch. Unlike the rest of the low quality bootlegs that comprise a large portion of my kung fu collection, I don’t mind the grainy textures and variant sound quality, which only seem to be exacerbated by modern televisions. There’s something about that quality and this movie that seems fitting and even charming. It probably isn’t my favorite kung fu movie, but it is emblematic of a certain type of kung fu movie, and reminiscent of a time in my life when I needed to be reminded that the opportunity to watch a good movie is something of value, to be enjoyed and savored. I think that more and more it’s become difficult for people to really unplug, and that being too busy to enjoy a decent quality of life has become the norm for so many people I know, and that isn’t a healthy way of life. One of the things that I’ve most valued about working on this project is that it has forced me to find the time to sit down and really watch and enjoy at least one movie each week. Even though I look at keeping my posts updated regularly as important work, I find it rewarding, and that satisfaction, along with an honest desire to approach all of these movies with an air of critical curiosity, has kept me working through. Five Deadly Venoms is, objectively, not the best movie that I’ve written about for this project, but it is one of the most fun, and often movies that are just plain fun are the ones most worth watching.