Sunday, May 20, 2018

Chang Cheh at the Quad: The Five Deadly Venoms

How would you like to be rescued by a toad or a lizard (possibly a gecko, depending on the translation of the subtitles)? Fortunately, there are no distressed damsels in this Shaw Brothers classic. Instead, the Venom martial arts clan will take care of some internal business. The Master has died, but he has sent his last student out to find out whether his brothers have been naughty or nice in Chang Cheh’s legendary The Five Deadly Venoms, which screens during the Quad’s upcoming retrospective, Vengeance is His: Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore, co-presented by the New York Asian Film Festival.

The old master trained five disciples, each in a different venom style. The Centipede attacks so quickly, it is like getting pummeled by hundreds of fists. Snakes strikes accurately and lethally at his victim’s weakest point. Toad is nearly invincible to fist or blade, but if his secret Achilles heel is pierced, he loses all his mojo. Lizard is so speedy, he walks up walls like Spiderman. Scorpion is known for his deadly kicks, which sounds conventional, but he is the sneakiest snake in the grass of them all.

The master sent them back out into the world, at which point they adopted new names and mostly started to reflect discredit on the clan through their crimes. With his dying breath, he instructs Yang Tieh to track down his five brothers, ascertain who has strayed from the righteous path and punish the wicked. Yang was trained in all five venoms, but his master died before his training was completed. He will not be able to defeat any of his seniors alone, but if he teams up with one of them, they will be able to perfectly compliment each other.

That will most likely be either Toad or Lizard (who is masquerading as a mildly corrupt constable). They are more rogues than villains. Like the other mystery venoms, they are searching for the treasure purloined by Yun, the Master’s elderly former clan brother. In fact, Toad is so public-spirited, he assists his brother Lizard apprehending a murder, whom they (rightly) suspect to be Centipede, but that calls unfortunate attention to Toad and his conspicuous toad-like invulnerability. Most of the venoms are pretty easy to guess, but Yang hides in plain sight, posing as a goofball drifter, which he mostly is.

Five Venoms is beloved as much for its eccentricity as it is for its martial arts spectacle. Frankly, some of the moves are downright loopy, but it is tough to beat the energy. Even by late 1970s Shaw Brothers standards, this is not exactly a lush production, but it is arguably the original archetype for a host of imitating-homage-paying followers, including Tarantino’s white-washed, anglicized Lady Snowblood rip-off, Kill Bill.

Kuo Chui and Lo Mang are both terrific as Lizard and Toad, respectively. Frankly, the film is at its rollicking best when it functions as their buddy movie. Alas, they are not together for long, but they make a dynamite team during that time. Chiang Sheng is also weirdly effective as Yang, who seems like a total sad sack throughout the first two acts, yet steps up nicely for the big climatic showdowns. Plus, Wei Pei looks appropriately slimy, but nicely handles the evolution of Snake.

So, pick your poison. There have been many more artistically refined martial arts films since 5DV, but this is the original article. In retrospect, we can even view it as a forerunner to scores of films, even including The Usual Suspects. It still delivers the goods, with all kinds of cynical good humor. Very highly recommended for martial arts fans, The Five Deadly Venoms screens this Wednesday (5/23) and Friday (5/25), as part of Chang Cheh’s Martial Lore at the Quad.