Asian Movie Month Movie 1: The Five Deadly Venoms

Asian Movie Month on PMT kicked off on Saturday (the 30th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s death)  with my article on G-Fan magazine.  Besides the anniversary of Lee’s death (who was actually born in the U.S. and moved to Hong Kong, then back to the U.S.), Guillermo del Toro’s magnificent tribute to Asian cinema Pacific Rim was also released this past weekend.  The excitement for next year’s Godzilla is building, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the death of Black Belt Jones himself, Jim Kelly (tho not an Asian actor, he did a lot to bring Asian films and kung fu to America and popularize it), who died on June 29th.

The Five Deadly Venoms is one of my favorite kung fu movies of all time.  Originally released in 1978 (before kung fu action scenes got so over the top) the actual fights are not as engaging as the plot, which is unusual for a ’70s Hong Kong kung fu actioner.  Not that the fights are bad or boring, just fairly average (except for the final one, which features characters who can stand on walls engaging in the fight).

The story is about a dying kung fu master who took on 5 students and taught each of them a different style of kung fu- the centipede, snake, scorpion, lizard, and toad styles.  Each style has it’s own special abilities (the toad’s skin is near invunerable and he’s super strong; the centipede is super fast; the lizard can walk on walls, etc.) and the teacher is afraid that his students might use their skills for evil.  He takes on one last student Yang Tieh (Sheng Chiang) and trains him a little of each style, then sends him to find the five former students and determine if they are using their skills for evil, and if so kill them.  He warns Yang that his skills are no match for any of the other five, however if he were to team up with one of them, together they could defeat the other four.  To make things even more complicated, they all wore masks while they were being trained, and changed their names after they left the school, so their identities are a mystery.

Sheng discovers that several of the five are indeed quite evil, and as he tries to determine who is who and if any of them can be trusted, he finds that the city itself is filled with corruption where money buys most any authority figure and murder is pretty common place.

The mystery is not a difficult one (tho three of the five are revealed pretty quickly, the Scorpion and the Lizard are not revealed until the end; it’s pretty easy to figure out who they are before then), but the story is still engaging.  It also embroils you in a culture that most of us haven’t experienced (the corruption is so blatant, and average people treated so harshly by the police and judge, it’s a culture shock.  At one point a family is murdered, and the judge gives the police 10 days to catch the killer, or they will be whipped every day after that).  Besides the special kung fu styles, the evil members of the Poison Clan (which is what they call themselves) also have several horrific ways of killing people without leaving a trace (such as sliding a hook into their mouth then slicing up the inside of their throat so they drown to death in their own blood).  1970’s Hong Kong action movies were all pretty violent, and this one has quite a few gruesome scenes in it.  Besides the above mentioned hook death, another person has a needle inserted in his nose and jabbed into his brain, several characters have their stomach’s burst by blows, and a couple of characters are tortured (one with an iron maiden).
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Writer/ director Cheh Chang actually made several movies around the same time using the main actors from The Five Deadly Venoms (such as Crippled Avengers, Invincible Shaolin, and later on The Sword Stained With Royal Blood), and was a pretty famous kung fu director for awhile (tho he hasn’t made any movies since the early ’90s).
In front of the camera, Philip Kwok (the Lizard) made it into a few Hollywood films (such as the ’90s incarnation of James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies) and was in John Woo’s Hard Boiled along with Meng Lo (the Toad).  Lo is the only actor from Five Deadly Venoms still working today (he recently appeared in Ip Man 2: Legend of the Grandmaster).

One of the above mentioned movies that Cheh Chang made with a lot of the same actors from Five Deadly Venoms (called Crippled Avengers) was alternately released with the name The Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, but it has nothing to do with the original (all the actors play different characters), other than also being pretty damn good and worth a watch.  Produced by the prolific Shaw Brothers, who provided loads of movies for the kung fu theatre type of matinee t.v. shows in the ’70s.

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