06 Oct THE VENOM INSIDE: NIHILISM AND HOPE IN THE FIVE VENOMS
“You ask me when we can stop. [Laughs.] I might as well tell you now. You will keep doing bad things. Once you start, there’s no end…forever and ever.”
The Five Venoms, also known as The Five Deadly Venoms, remains one of the most iconic films in the entire Shaw Brothers library. While the film certainly has its detractors due to its plot heavy approach and intentionally smaller fight sequences, it’s also one of the better rounded films from the Shaw Brothers in terms of character development, mystery, and thematic weight. The Five Venoms is a film more dedicated to its build than anything else, which is what has lead it to garnering so much momentum through the years and becoming one of the more iconic films from the studio. It’s impeccably paced, dynamically written, and everything in the film, from the jokes to the violence, has meaning to the plot, characters, and narrative. It’s layered and effective. Love it or hate it for its nuanced twists on the usual formula, but it’s The Five Venoms and it’s impactful on everyone that watches it.
Some of the issues that fans have with The Five Venoms is how rather ‘un-Venom Mob’ the film actually is compared to what the cast would be known for later down the road. Despite being the namesake for the Mob, The Five Venoms pulls away for the leaping acrobatics, rapid fire choreography, and massive fight sequences that set aside the Mob from other martial arts groups of the period. This film certainly embraces the gimmicks that the Venom Mob was notorious for in their films, particularly in how the film kicks off its story with its ‘five venom’ themed ploy to its characters and some of the foundational tricks to keep the audience hooked, but after it establishes the facts to get the mystery going and the momentum building, the film plays its narrative with a rather intense seriousness that goes against the grain for most of the material the Mob was known for…and that generally can be a shock to Shaw Brothers fans.
It’s this mystery to the plot, where the audience follows the Sixth Student as he tries to unravel the identities and plots of his five elder brothers from the Venom House, that grounds the film and pulls it away from the usual action frenzy. At times and through the majority of the second act, The Five Venoms plays out like a police procedural more than the usual kung fu flick as the various characters involved in a murder for hidden treasure attempt to ‘unmask’ the others and play out the circumstances in their favor – for good or bad. The confusion by the Sixth Student, played with playful and quizzical glee by Chiang Sheng, feeds into the mystery so that even when the identities of the Five Venoms are revealed to the audience, his attempts to unravel the mystery remain intense and effectively paced in the narrative. This reveals that The Five Venoms is not only a mystery film where characters may not be who they seem, but it is a film that’s plot and narrative heavy over the action.
Despite its unique approach to the usual Shaw Brothers storytelling techniques, The Five Venoms uses its gimmicky characters, each with the style and power of the venomous animal of their training, to develop some fantastic thematic depth to the film. By now I’m sure you, as a reader, are probably curious to the title of this piece and what nihilism and hope have to do with a decently gimmick riddled kung fu film, and it’s through the character interactions that this becomes relevant. This article opens up with a quote, pulled from the subtitled Blu Ray version available from Dragon Dynasty in the US, delivered by the enigmatic Scorpion when Snake challenges him about the reasons for killing to discover the hidden treasure. Snake has proven to be manipulative previously in the film, but he has a struggle of heart as things start to rapidly spiral out of control. Not to divulge too much of the plot or narrative surprises that The Five Venoms has in store for its unfamiliar viewers, but this is a key moment in the film about how each of the five Venoms approaches life and the mystery on hand. Each one is distinctly unique in their perspective and how they interact with one another and they range from hopeful (Sixth Student and his pure attempts at righting the wrongs of the Venom House) to the purely nihilistic (Scorpion and his perpetual karma of darkness). The manner that each character shifts in their emotional state, even going as far as being horribly sad to devastatingly shocking, gives the film layers and layers of deeper character study that is subtle and effective even compared to some of the best Shaw Brothers films. It’s an approach and rather intriguing depth that truly brings a spark and foundational core to a film that could have just played things much more straightforward. This is a film about the future and the gray areas of intent more so than the usual good vs. evil motifs that are popular in the martial arts genre.
Beyond the emotionally effective character layering and dynamic narrative that powers through the gimmicks, The Five Venoms also succeeds at being entertaining. The one thing that the Venom Mob brings to the table is their knack for screen presence and impeccable charm. The fights may be fewer and further between in the film, but when they arrive they pop on screen because of the time spent with the characters. And each actor brings a unique flavor to their character beyond the costumes and narrative. Normally, Phillip Kwok inherently steals any film he is in, but with The Five Venoms each one gives and takes focus with impressive ease and delivers some of the best performances of their careers. Big or small, they bring their A-game as actors and fighters in the film and it adds another level to the entire film. This leaves those brief fight sequences feeling emotionally charged and impressive when they arrive.
In the end, for all of these reasons, The Five Venoms remains not only one of the more memorable films from the Shaw Brothers studio, but one of their best for how it plays against its own formula and treads on fresh feeling turf. It’s a film that pulls away from the tropes, emotionally empowers all of its key characters with thematic depth and dynamic interactions, and still delivers on the entertainment even if it’s not nearly as time consuming and complex as other Venom Mob films of the era. Occasionally it touches on cheesy moments and the gimmicks can be larger than life in the opening act, but each layer only further explores the human experience (for better or worse) ranging from the brightest of hopes to the darkest of self-destructive tendencies.
And it makes you question, what exactly is behind our own Venom House mask?
Watch The Five Venoms with Prime Video: http://amzn.to/2kseDPY
Written by Matt L. Reifschneider the Founder/Writer/Lead Editor of Blood Brothers Film Reviews. Unapologetically cult. Follow him on Twitter.