You would be hard pressed to find a Shaw Brothers film more well-known internationally than The Five Venoms. It’s garnered a huge fanbase as a cult film over the years, inspiring everyone from rap supergroup the Wu-Tang clan to cult filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. Released in 1978, it fuses elements of the older swordplay and wuxia films that Shaws produced for many years with the harder, more realistic action sequences that came with the kung fu films of the late seventies. Finally, it brought into the spotlight the talented “Venoms” crew of actors, all good martial artists, acrobats and actors, who went on to star in many later films with Chang Cheh and other directors.
The story will be reminiscent to fans of Chang Cheh’s earlier work, or that of wuxia fantasy directors like Chor Yuen. The Venoms clan is losing its leader, now an old man suffering from a fatal illness. His dying wish is to disband the clan, which has done considerable evil and acquired a thoroughly unwholesome reputation over the years. Each member of the clan has trained in an obscure and rather entertaining style of kung fu, based on the movements of a venomous creature: the Gecko, the Centipede, the Toad, the Scorpion and the Snake.
The leader of the clan charges his final student, Yan Tieh (played by Chiang Sheng) to find his older brothers, who he suspects may be using their skills for no good, and remove them from circulation if they’re not acting with honour. In addition, he is to contact a retired member of the clan and ask him to donate the clan’s ill-gotten treasure to charity, thereby paying for their acts in the past. The hook in this story is that all five previous clansmen are hunting for the treasure as well, and that our sixth student is too young and inexperienced to defeat any of them alone. In addition, all of them guard their identities for fear of exposure and will not use the skills taught by the clan unless under great pressure. Some of them have met each other, while others have not, and Yan has met none of them.
So the film develops into a kung fu detective story, as Yan Tieh ambles through a provincial city looking for young men who are good fighters that may be his mysterious older colleagues and trying not to draw any attention to himself. Several of his quarries present themselves fairly early on, while others remain a mystery for most of the story.
The Five Venoms displays all the classic hallmarks of a Chang Cheh film: almost all the characters are male, it celebrates brotherhood and masculine heroism, and it contains a whole bunch of elaborately choreographed training and fight scenes. There’s also a great deal of violence and some rather unusual weapons and devices — including, rather surprisingly, an iron maiden.
All six lead actors put in impressive performances, particularly Chiang Sheng as the youngest student, whose acrobatic amblings through the streets are a little reminiscent of Jackie Chan or Yuen Biao. Lo Meng is also excellent as Toad, a tough, cocky and powerful fighter who’s unfortunately a little too easily manipulated. The fight scenes are good for the period, with a fight in the street between Lo Meng (Toad) and Lu Feng (Centipede) a particular highlight.
For this group of actors (and for Chang Cheh, to a certain extent), The Five Venoms is the one to see: it’s a well-constructed, solid piece of martial arts filmmaking, and a really entertaining watch. It’s also nice to see that some of the Venoms are still working — Philip Kwok has become quite a high-profile action director, and Lo Meng is still active in Hong Kong film and television work.