NetFlix Review #7: The Five Deadly Venoms

If you're going to talk chop-socky films, at some point you're going to be talking about The Shaw Brothers. Sir Run Run Shaw and his brother Runme began their film studio in the '30s. They produced a huge number of films, but truly found their place in the 70s with their run of grindhouse chop-socky flicks, such as The Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. They kept running their studio on the old Hollywood model, keeping a stable of actors on exclusive contracts and establishing creative teams, chop-socky Rat Packs (The Whack Pack?) of actors who would frequently work together with a director to establish a brand within the brand. They were sort of the Roger Cormans of Chinese Cinema, putting out a ton of low-budget fair, running a hefty amount of distribution and giving a lot of big Chinese stars their start. Sir Run Run Shaw is an interesting character, he put together a huge and varied business portfolio, made a ton of money and has given a huge portion to charity. He was knighted in 1977, and is still alive and kicking today at the ripe old age of 101.

What does any of this have to do with the actual film The Five Deadly Venoms? Not much, but it's interesting, no? Fine then, on with the film.

The Five Deadly Venoms has a fairly standard, if somewhat muddled, set up. An old Shaolin master is dying. He had five prized pupils who were trained in five different fighting styles, The Snake, The Toad, The Lizard, The Scorpion and The Centipede. He worries that his pupils may have turned out poorly, and sends his current student, whom he has trained in all five styles, but who has mastered none of them, to warn an old friend with money that he may be in danger from the Venoms, and then to seek the Venoms out and either befriend them so that they may help him train and give him the mastery he needs, or destroy them. Then, exuent the master.

Shenanigans happen as the master's old friend has concealed his identity, as have all five of the deadly venoms, who are also not all known to each other. The Centipede and The Snake are a team, The Toad and The Lizard are a team, and the Scorpion is the loner wild card. All the identities except for The Scorpion are learned fairly early by the audience, but not the other characters. The movie is one of those old-school thrillers where we know who done it, we watch to see how they get their come-uppance, a style I much prefer to the more modern "whodunnit?" where, as Roger Ebert once rather wittily noted is always someone you've seen before, so you grow to expect the person you're supposed to least suspect. Just once, Ebert wrote, he'd like to see the killer be someoen we've never seen, just some dude. It's fun to watch these guys sweat, trying to outfox the crooked cops, the bought judges, the shoddy witnesses and each other. The characters are also well-drawn, The Five embuing their names not only in their fighting styles, but movements, personality and costuming, none of which is overdone to the point of ridiculousness, but just shadowed in enough that I can easily remember which ones were which. The young apprentice, played by Chiang Sheng, is 50% Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name and 50% Charlie Chaplin. He bumbles through the town with a goofy grace, but observes better than people think he does and manages to stay free and easy amidst two warring factions.

But enough with all this character and plot nonsense, let's talk about some chop-socky!! The fights here are a lot of fun, it's great to see each fighters Venom Attack in action. While none of the set-pieces are as outlandish and jaw-dropping as today's martial arts movies, you do get great bits like The Snake trying to find The Toad's Achilles heel by using his two-fingered snakebite attack to test out various areas of possible weakness, or The Lizard's introductory footage of him standing perpendicular on a wall and using the force of his attack to blow out candles. I think the main feature in a Shaw Brothers fight scene is the sound design. It's incredible how you can close your eyes and just listen to a Shaw Brothers fight scene. In Five Deadly Venoms the fight scenes to listen to are the ones involving The Centipede, whose fast attack (as though he's coming at you with a hundred hands, get it?) is punctuated with a SWOOSH! THWACK! sound effect for every move. It's fantastic, and it's a lesson that Quentin Tarantino learned well. There was a day where I came home from work and Emily was watching Kill Bill 2 (it should be noted, the opening of the first movie has the "Presented in Shaw Scope" logo and Tarantino actually filmed segments at the Shaw Brothers Studio), and all I needed to hear was a second of the sound effects editing on the Beatrix vs. Elle fight scene to know what she was watching, it's that distinctive, clear and effective. I also think back on Riann Johnson's brilliant film Brick, where there is a foot chase that is actually built around sound design. I'm no film studies scholar, but I feel like this use of sound effects to build the entire rhythm and feeling of a scene in these Shaw Brothers films, and some of the other Chinese Martial Arts classics, has been extraordinarily influential in film design.

All in all, it's a fun flick. Now here's where I'm probably going to bring down some fire. I brought up Tarantino earlier on purpose. I've gotten into some arguements with people about Q.T. which largely center around them thinking he's a fanboy hack and me thinking he's a brilliant film culture collagist who makes something better than the whole of its parts. I like the Shaw Brothers and Sonny Chiba and Bruce Lee and Gordon Liu and Lady Snowblood and etc. etc., but you know what, I don't think they have the feeling or emotion that a Quentin Tarantino movie has. Enter the Dragon is great, but does it get me choked up like the end of Kill Bill, vol 2 does? Is Han as nuanced a character as Bill? Is Lee as conflicted, regretful and as deeply emotionally realized as The Bride? Not to me. I feel like Tarantino makes meditations on not only film, but a broad range of human experience. Movies such as The Five Venoms are like fables, with good guys and bad guys and big battles and cool stories. And frankly, there ain't nothing wrong with that.