Don't Ruin Your Reputation For Petty Gains: The Five Venoms (1978)

I decided to jam one last Shaw Brothers film onto my month of kung fu films, because, after all, they are the premier names in the realm of the martial arts work, indeed carrying the same weight Sirk does with the melodrama, Powell and Pressburger do with Technicolor and Ford does with the Western.  All of the aforementioned directors had moments in their career where they took considerable risks cinematically, choices that existed within their genre/style associations, while also twisting them in new and unique ways.  While they were often met with hesitation they also produced captivating and new ways in which to understand a previously cemented gorup of works.  I would argue that in The Five Venoms the Shaw Brothers approach the genre, for which they well established in at this point and decided to push it to grand proportions.  The Five Venoms is not a simple film, indeed the plot is considerably intricate despite its rather straightforward title, so much so that I will admit much of my recollection of the details of this film are heavily a result of scouring plot synopsis online prior to writing this blog post.  This audacious approach does pay off, considering that it is still incredibly watchable even if I found some, if not entire portions, narratively confusing and linearly uncertain.  I wholly embrace the work, because the Shaw Brothers dare to take a genre film and extend it to the grandest of proportions, indeed I would argue that The Five Venoms is the martial arts equivalent of something like Seven Samurai, where a work that had previously existed only in the realm of genre, moves into being grand, almost art house cinema.  Each moment of the winding and heavy plot of The Five Venoms plays into a larger consideration of loyalty, collective identity and deception that could make the most glorious of shogun samurai period pieces seem minor in breadth.  While I would be hard-pressed to consider this one of my favorite works of the marathon, I will concede to it being one of the more historically important.  It blows viewers over with information and narrative that extends through an undeclared amount of temporal space, never once back tracking (aside from affirming match cuts) to drive a message home.  The Five Venoms demands to be viewed with full attention and to be revisited many times.

The Five Venoms begins with the dying master of the infamous Poison clan explaining to its remaining student Yan Tieh (Chiang Sheng) that the previous five seniors of the dojo have come to make a less than positive name amongst themselves, although the master is rather certain that the infamy is resting on the actions of one or two of the former members.  Explaining to Yan that the five seniors have no identifiable names or traits, given their donning of masks, he goes about explaining the various techniques of the seniors in a hope that Yan will be able to incite them into betraying their secret identities through exposing their styles.  The five venoms of the title represent the animals with which each senior appropriates their style, which are the following: Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Gecko and Toad.  The last one the Toad proving particularly interesting since nearly all of his skill is predicated upon his being seemingly invincible.  Yan Tieh, however, is not skilled enough in any of the styles to take on the members of the respective dojo, thus leading the master to suggest that he befriend one of the members that is not tied to the exploitation and use their skills to overcome their opponent. The remainder of the movie involves Yan Tieh moving through the city outside of the dojo and uncovering the layers of deception that involve the members of the former Poison clan discover in the process that it is specifically Snake and Scorpion who are of the highest point of trouble making in terms of ruthlessness.  As such, Yan Tieh moves to befriend both Gecko and Toad, realizing that Centipede is also tied to the criminal activity.  Yet, given the layers of communication occurring and the various skills and extensions of power possessed by the members, both good and bad, Toad is eventually killed through the brutal use of The Coat of a Thousand Needles.  After affirming Gecko's identity, Yan Tieh proceeds to create a plan of attack for the taking on of Snake and Scorpion, one that requires training and eventually flawless execution, but just as the Poison clan master predicted, Yan Tieh is able to fell the villainous members and end any further extension of a negative name upon the Poison clan.

I have mentioned in degrees of passing through the previous posts, particularly when discussing Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky, the idea that one of the tropes within kung fu cinema appears to be the idea of body on display to be performed and performed upon.  I know this is what I just discussed concerning Mirageman, but here one can see it evolving in relation to the classical work of Shaw Brothers, relatively speaking of course.  I mean to say that there are multiple ways in which the body is put on display as well as theoretically considered.  Take for example Toad, he is the point of such masculine perfection as to be a battering ram that is incapable of overcoming, unless one is to be aware of his single weakness, which is place, not unintentionally in his eyes.  As an insurmountable force, he is apt not to listen to reason or budge, therefore the body and mind are distinctly separated in this context.  Similarly  this body on spectacle as a direct contradiction to the power of the mind, occurs with both Snake and Scorpion who are inclined to betray their identities, because both styles of martial arts require them to project their bodies in significant and highly personalized ways, therefore their body as power, requires them to reject the mental strains of stealth and secrecy.  It is indeed no small directorial choice to make Gecko a fighting style that predicates itself upon patience before striking, whereas Centipede and his intense "one thousand hands" attack is both sporadic and a barrage, but also so flailing and wild as to leave his mind exposed to the strikes of Gecko and Yan Tieh.  Indeed, it seems as though the film draws a clear line between issues of the over performed body, specifically that of the masculine and its ties to corruption and a willingness to do illegal, if not outright evil acts.  The narrative thus becomes a commentary on the importance of a well-rounded mind to match a physical prowess, because not only does it allow one to make consciously sound decisions, it also affords one the means to overpower those who might otherwise win off of brutish means alone.

Key Scene:  Opening montage is great, indeed, it might be its excellence that made getting into the slower pacing of the remainder of the film a tad more difficult.

This is worth renting before buy, not that it is outright bad, indeed it is quite good.  It might, however, prove a bit confusing upon a first viewing.

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