Five Deadly Venoms (1978) — Chang Cheh channels heroic bloodshed via mystery

Director: Chang Cheh

Cast: Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, Wei Pei, Lu Feng

Story: A kung fu student must fulfill his master’s final instructions and face some of his evil seniors who are much skillful than him.

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Considered as the most prominent filmmaker from the Shaw Brothers’ stable of directors, which at one point of time included King Hu, Chang Cheh made some of the most popular kung fu films to come out of Hong Kong. His efforts include cult favorites such as One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Heroic Ones (1970), Five Elements Ninja (1982), Crippled Avengers (1978) and, of course, Five Deadly Venoms (1978).

The movies of Chang Cheh could be seen as bearing the prototypical elements that would go on to form the heroic bloodshed genre, a category of Hong Kong action movies that still inspires action cinema all over the world. To put it simply, heroic bloodshed focuses on male camaraderie, a strong moral code, revenge, and redemption. These films had some staple characters such as a good-at-heart gangster and an honest police officer, who would often team up to bring down the bad guy. Across movies, there were subtle variations in the motives of characters, the degree of their cockiness, and to what extent the protagonists were humor-resistant, but one thing was certain: hyper-stylized violence, as much as Chow Yun-fat with dual Berettas.

Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms and most of his kung fu movies (haven’t seen them all) were very much the precursors to the heroic bloodshed movies, with ample display of moral codes, brotherhood, intense violence, reverence for the masculine and commitment to the marginalization of the feminine.

I recently watched Five Deadly Venoms on Netflix and realized how long it had been since I had watched a 70’s Hong Kong movie that was not Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) or Drunken Master (1978). It was fun!

Five Deadly Venoms begins with a dying kung fu master revealing to his pupil the not so positive reputation of his school, which is kind of obvious if you name your school the Poison Clan, and the possible nefarious designs of his five former pupils, each of whom has mastered a particular fighting technique — Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad. The sixth pupil, who has mastered none of these techniques but is a jack of all, receives the instruction to prevent his seniors from succeeding in their evil plans. With inferior skills to his seniors, the sixth pupil’s only hope is to hope that not all of them have turned evil and that he could join the ones who still have their integrity and honor intact and defeat the others. The catch is even the master does not know the identity of his pupil because, for some reason, they practiced with masks on. However, again, for some reason, the master seems to know that some of the pupils might know each other individually.

I will agree that the plot is far from perfect and that a lot of things do not make much sense. However, I did find the structure and the themes that stem out of that slightly weird premise interesting and, mostly, effective. Thanks to the hidden identities, the movie is part mystery, which would have seemed unnecessary and less engaging had the writers chosen to keep the audience in the dark, too, like the characters (the identities of all but one pupil are revealed). Now, although the audience is a step ahead of the characters, they are still in the guessing game, with regard to the identity of the last pupil.

The themes, too, are varied and layered and provide a welcome change of pace in an action movie largely meant to showcase the physical prowess of the actors and the intricate fight choreography. For example, there is the theme of trust and masks. The master trusts only the sixth pupil because he has seen his face; later in the movie, the audience is able to guess how the events would unfold for characters who rest their trust in someone who has not revealed his identity. Themes such as honor, brotherhood, revenge, redemption common in heroic bloodshed movies are also observed. In addition, finer character details, such as a character whose skin is invulnerable to weapons is also the most vulnerable of the lot when it comes to trusting people, make Five Deadly Venoms a wholesome viewing experience.

The action choreography is highly imaginative and meant for most impact. Each character has his own combat style and Chang Cheh makes sure that we see the different techniques as the extension of the characters, as distinguished as their personalities. Although, I would have loved the final fight to last a little longer, what we get is nonetheless one the best fight scenes from that period. The training montage of the five pupils alone could be considered as one of the best training montages ever filmed.

Chang Cheh makes the most of the male form on display in all its beauty and strength. He ensures that the camera does not shy away from the brutalities on display, the horrors being inflicted on these bodies and captures the essence of what these characters live and die for —  their code of honor and brotherhood.

What are your thoughts on the film or on kung fu movies in general? We would love to hear from you in the comments below. 

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