|Plot Outline: The Poison Clan is a five man group of martial artists trained by an old master anonymously. Each of the five Kung Fu masters possess their own special skill based around a specific animal. The clan consists of The Centipede, The Scorpion, The Lizard, The Snake and The Toad. After all the members of the clan have completed their training, the old master decides to send his unfinished pupil (Chiang Sheng) out to make sure that they haven’t been using their skills for evil purposes. The only problem is that the pupil doesn’t know who is in the clan, they were all trained wearing masks, and not even the master himself knows who they really are or what they look like. So the young pupil must find the members of the clan who are still on the side of good and join them to defeat the evil clan members, who are now after the gold of the old Master’s close friend.|
The Review: Chang Cheh, who passed away not too long ago, shall forever be admired by his fans as one of the most inventive and original old school kung fu directors of all time. No matter what some of his detractors may have to say. His films, unlike many other movies produced at the same time that were following dense plots about revenge, always seemed to have an edge above the rest. Sometimes gimmicky, but always fun, his films usually had some kind of levarage that lifted his films above the rest. Whether we’re talking about the five venoms of Five Deadly Venoms, the five crippleds from Crippled Avengers or even the Chi Saw Gang of The Kid with the Golden Arm, Cheh always knew how to keep things interesting, fun and unique. Most people when they think of Old School Kung Fu, or the Shaw studios in general, they think of a story along the lines of Master Killer. You know, man’s family/wife/dog is murdered, he travels to shaolin/elderly man/unknown master and learns a secret style of kung fu that helps him defeat the baddies at the end. There’s nothing wrong with that or anything, I’m a huge fan of Master Killer and dozens of other films that use the same generic plot device, but Cheh’s films always felt like a breath of fresh air. Of course Cheh utilized stories similar to the one above, but even then his films still felt more innovative than your average chop socky flick from the same era. He just had a golden touch that was able to lift almost any average plot, and make it something almost magical. His films were beautifully simple, but ultimately extremely rewarding because he knew exactly how the action was to be shot and how the story should be told. Like a Hong Kong John Ford or Howard Hawks. He always gave his actors the room they needed to perform their highly complex choreography, and he always tried to top himself. That’s what made his films so unique, and when there was a film with both Chang Cheh and the Venoms Clan, you absolutely knew you were in for a treat. Although Five Deadly Venoms isn’t the first film the clan made together (they all appeared in Chinatown Kid a year earlier), this was the film that made them stars and won their way into the hearts of many old school film fans. It, much like Master Killer, is a simple story told in a large way. Much less focus on action as many of his later films would be, this is Chang Cheh at his most focused. He trusts his story here and doesn’t rely on a plethora of battle sequences to make up for the miniscule script. He delivers what is easily the best Kung Fu mystery ever made, and a true epic, even if the running time isn’t equal to three hours. I could very well just be the most biased reviewer on the planet, and I assure it’s possible, but the film is pure escapist entertainment. It’s not a complex film, and I’ll admit that forth right. You’ll either have fun while watching the film or you won’t, but there’s no denying the it’s incredible place in martial arts cinema history.
I can’t pretend that Five Venoms is the kind of film your average movie audience is just going to sit down and love immediately. Particularly some of the kids who have grown up with The Matrix or Jackie Chan films. Five Deadly Venoms isn’t half as action oriented as even Chang Cheh’s later films, which believe it or not, works extremely well in this case. Believe it or not, there are only a handful of fight scenes that take place throughout the whole film. The story takes it’s time to unfold, without the slightest care for the limited patience of some viewers. The action is dispersed throughout a few fairly decent sized run-ins from beginning to end, and the fighting that is here is absolutely brilliant as per usual for the venoms. The most impressive of all fights is easily the climatic battle between the remaining members of the Poison Clan, I can’t tell who is there and who isn’t because that’s half the fun, figuring out which poison is which. All I can tell you is that the nearly eight minute fight sequence is top notch. The action is handled with ease by Cheh, and the Venoms all excuse themselves brilliantly. The second biggest battle would be a small street fight between The Centipede and The Toad, Lu Feng and Lo Meng are amazing to watch during the course of the fight. I’ve always been quite fond of Lo Meng’s fighting style in the film, using his fists like sledgehammers, you can tell he intends to hurt whatever stands in his way. Then again, we are talking about my favorite member of the Clan! That is just yet another fun part of the film, choosing a favorite member of the Poison Clan. No matter who watches it, whether they like it or not, everyone develops a favorite member while watching. It’s like watching a battle between Super Heroes, we all secretly dream to be at least one of them. Like I said, I’ve always took a fondness to The Toad. His Kung Fu prevents him from being hurt by any attack or weapon, his skin is like iron and being the biggest member of the Venoms he’s perfect for the role. The torture chamber sequence wherein certain evil Poison Clan members try their best to discover The Toad’s weak spot, which would then make him vulnerable to their torture, is easily one of the most memorable scenes in any Kung Fu film ever. Right up there when Bruce Lee breaks out the nunchaku in that cavern towards the end of Enter the Dragon. Every member of the clan has some form of super power worth emulating though. The Lizard is able to walk up walls and strike down on his opponents from below. The Centipede is extremely fast with his Kung Fu, especially his kicks which are enough to kill a man. The Snake’s fisted attacks which act like claws make it easy for him to rip through his opponents skin, easily disabling them. The Scorpion carries a series of small sharp objects that he can use to throw and injure his opponents, which goes along with his sharp and fast moving Kung Fu that resembles a Scorpion’s Pincer. The whole addition of the different poisons may seem like a rather simplistic method of making things interesting by the more intellectual (read: snobby) among you, but it works and that’s all there is to it. It may be a bit violent to show to younger children, but if I had seen the film when I was a kid I have no doubt that I would have loved it. It’s just that curiously entertaining.
If there’s one thing anybody can say about Chang Cheh, it’s that he knew how to handle action. Five Deadly Venoms may be fairly conservative with the amount of actual fighting there is, but that doesn’t detract anything from the quality as I’ve pointed out. Here Cheh is actually even more exciting than his usual work. He gives the choreography room to stretch, but he still keeps the audience right in on the dance floor with our highly trained combatants. During the climax with our eight minute (or so) fight sequence, there are some truly amazing shots. The camera shakes when our fighters get too close, it’s fluid in it’s editing but doesn’t make the mistake of over-editing, Cheh is simply masterful. This is in no small part thanks to the cinematographers and choreographers, but Chang Cheh’s name is written over everything within the film. No doubt, most essentially in the writing stage of the film with his long running partner Ni Kuang. Five Deadly Venoms goes beyond just the clutchings of a mere Kung Fu film, if you want to think of it in that light it’s fine, but Five Venoms is a great ‘film’, not just for any individual genre. This is all thanks in my opinion to the script provided for the film. The pacing may not be lightning fast, but it’s so interesting that one is drawn into paying attention. This is why you may run into some resistance for the film. Some people walk in expecting one thing only to be delivered another. Think of Five Venoms as a mystery with men beating each other up and you’ll no doubt walk away somewhat satisfied. The questioning of ‘who is which venom’ throughout the film may leave you a bit confused on first viewing if you aren’t familiar with the actors, but I think the broadly different personalities that each actor creates easily paints them as individuals for the audience. Chiang Sheng, who is often considered the Sixth Venom because of his participation in so many of the other Venom teamups, is equally sarcastic and charming, as he always tends to be. He plays the young student fresh into the world on a quest from his master, he plays up the naive bit and makes it work well, but his humorous attitude helps to balance out the more darker moments within the film. Philip Kwok plays an inspector alongside Chien Sun, trying to guide us through the mystery and discover just who is who. Kwok is as good as ever, this time playing a rather dramatic character who believes in the law as the only thing he knows. Chien Sun is much the same, but keeps to himself much to himself and remains more reserved. Then there’s my personal favorite member of the Clan, favorite poison and one of my favorite actors, Lo Meng! Lo is the biggest of the guys as far as muscle goes, and he doesn’t get to flip around quite as much as the other guys, but he’s easily the most likable of the Venoms with a natural charisma and honor about him that is hard to explain. I don’t exactly have a man-crush on the guy or anything like that, but for some reason, perhaps because of his fighting style or his acting talents, he’ll always remain my favorite member of the clan. Pai Wei shows up as rich boy Hung Wen Tung, although Wei only acted in about four Venom teamups, I’ll always consider him equal alongside the others. This time around he gets to play the bad guy who might even regret some of his mistakes. He keeps things heavy but doesn’t come off as a sadist or a butcher, unlike his partner in crime Tang Sen Kue played by a bearded Lu Feng. The two are distinctly opposite but still equal in their greed and corruption. The characters are all polar opposites to one another really, and just because their Kung Fu styles are unlike any other film, what really separates them all is the individual actors and their ability to create such interesting characterizations. A beautiful script doesn’t hurt anything either.
What else can be said about the film? It’s not perfect really, the plot may drag a bit too much for the new school Hk fans, but to me this is the pinnacle of a great man’s career and signifies a turning point in HK cinema. An absolute must see for anyone into kung fu films, as well as those interested in Asian cinema generally. I advise anyone new to the genre, if you’re wanting to get into these films or just test the waters, see Five Deadly Venoms doubled with Shaolin Master Killer. Both films are diametrically apposed to one another in style and substance, but both compliments one another showing the wide variety of ways any Kung Fu film can take. I can’t stress how highly recommended Five Venoms in, but I just hope I don’t over hype it for anyone who might get the wrong ideas about it. To give the film anything less than a Stubbing would be cheating the world, I mean that.