I'm excited to review The Five Venoms for a variety of reasons: not only is it the first film in the Shaw Brothers' legendary series of films featuring the titular heroes (and villains); it's one of the most popular and well known works from the Shaw Brothers' studio. For example, The Five Venoms is the 11th film on Entertainment Weekly's Top 50 cult films of all time (the highest placed kung-fu film) and if that isn't a sign of almost-certain awesomeness I don't know what is!
Then again, They Live is only at number 38, so what do they know, eh?
I'll be straight out with it, after all you've cared enough to click past the jump -- I absolutely loved The Five Venoms. Not, and this is unusual for me, because I was particularly thrilled by the kung-fu action, because I wasn't. What I was thrilled by was the depth of the plot and characterisation; this is one of the few kung-fu films I've seen that kept me entertained with exposition. Heck, make that one of the few films in general to do that.
Indeed, the kung-fu action can be downright ropey at points -- certainly during the opening sequence, which introduces us to our "hero" Yang Tieh (played by Chiang Sheng with a downright terrible haircut), who is being told by his master about the five students which preceded him. Each student is one of the five Venoms, and is shown performing his personal skill set, with their identities hidden by some natty masks. There's the Centipede, who strikes so fast it's like he's got a thousand arms, but who is shown waving his arms about while plates fall on him (it looks totally rubbish). There's the Snake, whose skill is... Um, crawling along the floor backwards, which looks as stupid as it sounds. Thankfully the Scorpion comes along and does some impressive stinging tail kicks, the Gecko does some fantastical wall leaping and the Toad reveals himself to be impervious to bladed weapons, but nothing on show is ever really that impressive, though the final battle is dripping with so much pathos that it's a fittingly exciting conclusion.
But the film begins with Yang Tieh being asked to find the five Venoms and find out if they're being good or bad -- a fair challenge, considering that he doesn't know who they are, what they look like, what their names are, where they are... Neither, he learns, do they necessarily know anything about each other. With his only clue the location of the Venoms' clan treasurer, he sets off on his adventure.
Not that after this intro is he really particularly important to the plot, which is probably a weakness, but his haircut is so god awful I was pretty pleased that he wasn't about. The plot itself concerns the interaction between the rest of the Venoms, with a few turning out to be good, a few turning out to be bad, and with a great deal of machination and manipulation occurring at all times, this isn't the average kind of kung-fu film where as long as you know the guy on the right side of the screen is good and the left side is bad at the start of the fight you're going to be okay.
The dispensability of the main character aside, there rest of the film is as tight and streamlined as can be, so much so that I don't actually want to discuss the plot beyond this cursory explanation for fear I'd spoil it. You will become very attached to characters, however, and it's also a fairly interesting film by being almost entirely devoid of females -- apparently, however, the Snake was originally meant to be female.
So what can I say about a kung-fu film in which the action isn't that exciting out of context, and I refuse to talk about the story for fear I'd spoil it for anyone? Well, it's a film that made me realize exactly how great the plot of a kung-fu flick can be, and that I don't want to spoil that plot means I clearly want everyone who reads this to see it. So...
What are you waiting for?
A newly restored version of The Five Venoms is being shown by Cinematheque Ontario as part of their Heroic Grace II series at Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas West, Toronto on Saturday June 10nd at 6:30pm. If you can't make it out, or you don't live in Toronto, it can be purchased at YesAsia.