Retro Review: The Five Venoms
The Five Venoms (aka The Five Deadly Venoms) is a flawless example of a genre of Kung-Fu films that time has not been kind to.
The Five Venoms is a cult classic, a film that has been referenced by Quentin Tarantino, The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and the Wu-Tang Clan. It’s not hard to see why. The film is probably one of the finest examples of Peking Opera Kung-fu: sprawling intrigue, unique styles, and a comedy yin to balance the violent yang. Unfortunately, films of this genre mean more to me as precursors to better Kung-Fu films. Speaking of Yin and Yang, this era also had duality. On one side we had the Western-tinted, powerful beat’em-ups spearheaded by Bruce Lee; in the other we had more traditional films that focused on acrobatics, grace, and drama. While I can appreciate both styles, I cleave more to successor films that married the two together, typified by stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
But China has a deeply rooted tradition of familial piety: of respecting your elders. In this vein, let’s show the OG Wushu masters some love.
The Five Venoms (1978)
A dying master has one final task for his last pupil (Shen Chiang): seek out his 5 previous disciples. If they are good, let them be. If they are evil, destroy them. Each specialized in a form of Kung-Fu relating to a venomous animal: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Lizard, and The Toad. They are The Five Deadly Venoms.
The problem is, these 5 masters all trained in anonymity, masking their faces and changing their names after leaving the temple. If Yang Tieh the 6th disciple is to find them, he must first find an old master from the Poison Clan. But the Venoms all seek this man too, as he possesses a vast fortune collected from the Clan’s many exploits.
Fully Mastered Techniques…
The Five Venoms is quintessential Peking Opera. The choreography, by Ip Man’s last private disciple Leung Ting, is graceful. It combines close quarters Wushu with acrobatic leaps and slides. Each of the Venoms has a signature move set, which breaks up the standardized Kung-Fu moves. The soundtrack is a little old in the tooth, but it works as a driver of the drama. I always knew a big reveal or deadly trap was about to spring by the “ominous music” (the subtitles term, not mine). The camera work is nothing to write home about, competent but staid… Until the finale. When the kicks and bodies start really flying the camera does a fantastic job panning in and out to show the scope of the duels. It also does a few novel tricks like inserting itself as the victim whenever The Centipede does his furious flurry of attacks.
The final element that rises above average Peking Opera is the story. While it isn’t all that novel, it’s far superior to other films of its ilk. It’s both written and cut sensibly, with events flowing seamlessly and intuitively. This is a genre were bizarre film cuts (often splicing in stock footage from other films) can make the stories nonsensical. Not so here. It moves from A to B to Death Battle with dogged determination. It also uses the comedy sparingly, something that can get out of hand. The only knock I have with the story is…
…That are Slow,
The ratio of story to butt whippings can be a little meager. The first 2/3 of the film is sparse in the action department, besides a primer on each Venom’s skill set and a duel between the 1st and 5th disciple. The last ten minutes is nothing but action. It sacrifices pacing at the altar of continuity. While I approved of the choice, others might want more chop-sockey.
And Lack Power!
The major drawback of late 70’s Peking Opera Kung-Fu is the focus on grace over power. The story is always about men who can shatter bones with just a touch (Bruce Lee didn’t invent the one-inch punch in a vacuum), but the action on display is dainty. At my least charitable I’d call it a tickle-fight between fencing masters. When two of the disciples slaughter a household with their “deadly techniques”, I laughed when the medical examiner described all the carnage. Those people got hit with Three Stooges levels of slaps and pokes, yet their bodies were black and blue with contusions.
While Bruce Lee was busy dispatching enemies with brutal efficiency, Peking Opera was engaging in quasi-violent ballet. I find both a little unsatisfying, and I’m a big fan of when the two styles decided to kick and make up in the late 80’s and 90’s.
Half a Loaf of Kung-Fu
The Five Venoms does what it does better than its rivals. But this is 2018, and the students have surpassed the masters. If you really like Peking Opera, you’ll find an exemplary film here. Others might want to search out a different Sifu.