September 9, 1999 -- I've been hearing about this movie for years, but when you live in a small town like Laramie, Wyoming, the chances of finding a Hong Kong kung fu action film like "The Five Venoms" (also known as "The Five Deadly Venoms") on the video shelves are slim. Suddenly, there it was, right there on the Blockbuster shelf, in a widescreen version no less! Cool. I finally got to see what all the fuss was about.
It turns out that it is very similar to other Hong Kong action films. Bad dubbing, bad sound effects, thin plot, poor makeup, really fake-looking fight scenes. You know the routine. What it does have, however, is this really operatic, over-the-top story with all kinds of overwrought drama, backstabbing and treachery. It is not subtle, but it is effective.
The style reminds me of John Woo films ("The Killer" "Face/Off"), which is understandable, since Woo worked with Venom director Cheh Chang (who also wrote the screenplay). Chang directed over 100 of these grunt and kick epics, including 10 movies released in 1977 and 1978. This film was released in 1978, one of 7 Cheh Chang-directed movies released that year, so he couldn't have had much time to work on this film. Considering the constraints he was under it is a remarkable achievement. Venoms was produced by Shaw Brothers studios, also well-known in kung fu circles.
Probably the main reason this film is not terribly impressive to a westerner like myself is the incredibly bad dubbing. Give me subtitles any day. If I understood Cantonese and had seen it on the big screen in Hong Kong when it first came out, I probably would be a lot more impressed with it. Since the movie has dubbed-in English, there may have been tampering with other Foley sounds as well, like the fake thunk of the punches that obviously miss, but we're supposed to believe are landing. I found these noises annoying.
The problem with the extended fight scenes in the film probably has to do with the obviously tight production schedule and budget. If this were done by an American studio with a big budget and a year to shoot it, the fight scenes could have been better staged so they would appear half-way believable. As it is, Chang probably didn't have the luxury of a lot of takes. What he did have were skilled fighters. In those days, Hong Kong was loaded with skilled kung fu cinema warriors, maybe it still is. It is obvious though, the only way you can view the fight scenes as great is if you view them as a unique art form, like pro wrestling. I can't really buy into it, or pro wrestling, either.
Another problem I had with the film is the introduction of supernatural elements with no explanation for them. The Toad Venom (Meng Lo) for instance, could fend off swords with his bare arms and not bleed. Lizard Venom (Philip Kwok) and a venom student (Sheng Chiang) could walk up walls and stand perpendicular to the wall with no means of support. These abilities defy any but supernatural explanations, but there is no explanation given for these impossible powers.
The setup for the story is also strange, the dying Venom master thinks his former pupils might have gone bad (he's right, but how does he know, and why bother teaching them in the first place?) so he sends a younger, inexperienced student (Sheng Chiang) out to kill them. There is also a hidden treasure that needs to be given to charity. Again, why wasn't the treasure given to charity earlier? The treasure is a plot convenience to attract the bad kung fu guys. I suspect the plot can't possibly be this bad, so the real plot must have been lost in the bad dubbing.
The rest of the plot is intriguing with its hidden identities, unholy alliances, treachery and scheming. It is quite complex, and the slow, cruel death of one of the main characters is poignant indeed. The film stars Feng Lu as the lighting-fast Centipede Venom, Pai Wei as the sinuous Snake Venom, Chien Sun as the deadly Scorpion Venom and here come Lung Wei Wang as the judge. Veteran kung fu star Dick Wei (credited as Tu Lung) appears in a pathetic fake white beard in the film's opening scenes. This film rates a C.
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