“Five Deadly Venoms” is a classic of Hong Kong cinema, a film which further cemented director Chang Cheh’s reputation and made such stars of its six main cast members that from that point on, they were known as “the Venom Mob” (appearing in a number of films together). It’s got a number of celebrity fans, including RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan; and Shaw Brothers released a cleaned-up print of it a few years ago, so now we fans in the West can see just how good or otherwise it was.
The Five Venoms Clan is hated by the rest of the martial arts world, for reasons which go unstated. The boss of the house has decided that, as he’s dying, it’s about time he atoned for his house’s sins and sends his last student, Yang Tieh (Sheng Chiang, one of the great Hong Kong leading men) to find the five former students and, if they’re good, leave them be, but if they’ve become evil, to kill them. He’s trained, sort of, in the five styles that the other graduates mastered – Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Gecko and Toad styles – which gives us a potted history of the five he’s about to go up against and give us handy demonstrations of their skills.
So far, so good! As in so many of these movies, they didn’t bother hiring anyone for whom English was a known language to do the subtitling, so there’s tons of oddness there. The Police Chief is called “Lord” throughout, implying some sense of him being a religious leader; and there’s a ton of extremely specific detail about the relationships of the five former students at the beginning too, none of which makes the slightest bit of difference to the rest of the movie.
But the plot is the king with this, which is extremely unusual for a martial arts movie. Yang has been instructed to get the hidden treasure of the Five Venoms Clan and to give it to charity, to fix their reputation, but the guy who has it, a former classmate of the Clan boss, has gone to ground too. So, Yang has to find him as well as the five former students, fight one, more or all of them, and save the day. The shifting allegiances among the groups, and the way the local Governor gets involved, are what makes this film the classic it undoubtedly is.
Because, honestly, there’s not too much fighting in it. The final battle is fantastic, of course, but there’s a lot of torture and discussion about the murder of the old classmate, which you’d think would slow things down but in this case doesn’t. The bright colours and not-too-OTT comedy all play into it as well…for a film where good guys get cut down and the end victory only comes with substantial sacrifice, it feels really light and fun to watch, an escapist story of ancient China.
I’d definitely recommend “Five Deadly Venoms”, if you’ve not already seen it. Possibly not one for your first ever martial arts movie, but it definitely should be near the top of your list.
Rating: thumbs up