When it comes to Kung Fu in film, if the first images that pop into your head are an aging Jackie Chan, a toned down Jet Li, or god forbid, Steven Seagal, then I would like for you to hear me out. I want to tell you about a a group of men, lead by a rebel of Chinese cinema, not totally unlike America’s Sam Peckinpah, who loved masculine displays of carnage and togetherness, mixed with stern bravado and a nice dose of action. This leader among men went by the name of Chang Cheh, and his cavalry of martial arts enthused actors were once called ‘The Venoms’. They, along with dozens of other highly talented martial artists, were part of the film studio called Shaw Bros. Studio, not surprisingly started by two brothers, Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw. The Shaw Bros. released an assorted line of films, hundreds that span many genres, musicals being some of their most famous productions during their larger days – but they were also well known for their elaborate Kung Fu films. Sometimes hokey and cheap, sometimes epic and stagey, the Shaws ran the gamut and defined martial arts cinema well before the most popular of stars today were ever going at it. Among the countless films you could yank from the Shaw library, or the countless series and actors, very few films can top what the Venoms helped create and produce during their years together.
Yes, yes, yes; but who are the Venoms, right? The Venoms were a group of martial artists put together by Chang Cheh, their first actual film together was Chinatown Kid in 1977. A film about a Chinese refugee who heads to San Francisco after running into some trouble in Hong Kong, it was the first Chang Cheh film to feature the group that would later become the clan. It was their second feature film together that gained them notoriety and of course their immortal nicknames, however. That film was the immortal Five Deadly Venoms. The story focused on a group of five warriors called “the Poison Clan”, all trained anonymously by an aging master, but as his time comes to an end, his final student (Chiang Sheng) is sent off on a mission to track down the other students and make sure they’re not up to any evil-doings. What would a Kung Fu flick be without evil-doings though? Nothing, that’s what. So the last student is sent off into the world with his training only partially complete, trying to find five masked martial artists who have never given up their names; a hard task to accomplish by anyone’s standards. Especially when all of the Clan have their own individual animal styles that you aren’t fully trained to repel. There is the “Snake” style, the “Toad” style, the “Centipede” style, the “Scorpion” style and the “Lizard” style. Along the way our adventurous student discovers the group is essentially split with half fighting for good and half for evil. So he must find those that haven’t been corrupted, team with them and complete his training; and at last defeat the evil members. What makes Five Venoms such an interesting bit of old school action isn’t so much the brilliant or speedy fight choreography, much less anything as glamorous as wire work or digital effects, Five Venoms took a somewhat simplistic tale of good vs. evil and heightened the plot in order to actually give the fight scenes reasoning and more than just exploitation of the running time. Five Deadly Venoms may be one of the only films from the era that I feel truly deserves to be called a Kung Fu Mystery; because throwing into just the martial arts genre doesn’t seem to do it justice. Maybe if you’re not accepting of this sort of cinema you’ll just scoff at the trivial plot, and you have that right, but in the annals of Kung Fu cinema, I have yet to find a film that takes it’s story as serious as Five Venoms appears to do.
Their third feature together was Invincible Shaolin in 1978, a story of two Shaolin schools pitted against one another by an evil warlord who plays friends with both in order to get them to destroy themselves. Invincible Shaolin is probably the second most story focused film the Venoms developed as a team, it builds upon all the things that made Five Venoms such a magical experience and once again gives some rather amazing characters; each specializing in their own weapons combat. Following this great step up in story telling, Cheh and five of the Venoms created a film that drastically takes it’s self away from strong storytelling, but makes for one of their most action oriented and downright entertaining films; Crippled Avengers. A story about a Kung Fu master who has his son’s arms dismembered, but builds him iron hands in order for him to learn Kung Fu and seek revenge. The only problem is that once the father and son are finished with their revenge, daddy still isn’t happy. He takes on a thirst for blood and money, and the power that his martial arts wielding metal-armed son holds proves to be too much for him to resist. Slowly he begins beating, maiming and ultimately crippling several men who form an alliance in order to seek revenge. A deaf mute man, a idiot man, a blind man and a legless man. The four pair together and train with an elder martial artist, each taking their handicaps and turning them into greater attributes. Imagine Zatoichi, only if his legs were made out of iron and could kick through someone’s stomach.
Going through the Venoms films together would probably take up too much time for just this one article (around 14 films altogether, depending on your sources or what you personal consider a “venoms film”), but I will try and speak on some of their more uplifting classics from here out. In 1979 they put together Kid with the Golden Arm a defining moment for the group, as I find it to be one of the better examples of both Chang Cheh’s ability to put together a well told story, and something outrageous and possibly gimmicky. A story of a group trying to cross the country with a chest of gold, only to be interrupted by a man called Golden Arm with his psychotic team of misfits; one of which even has a brass plated skull (and indeed, Golden Arm has arms that cannot be sliced by any sword). The film is also an important part of Cheh (as well as the Venom’s) oeuvre because of the part played by Pai Wei, the “Snake” member of the clan who rarely ever appeared in films after his popular turn in Five Deadly Venoms. 1980 brought Flag of Iron, another Venoms classic. The story focuses on a school sent into dismay after a trap set by a rivaling school ends in the death of their teacher. One of the students, Brother Lo (Phillip Kwok) takes the blame upon himself with the local police and is sent to live out amongst the commoners, but is promised to be taken care of. Ultimately he receives no form of financial aid from the group. Ten killers (as only Chang Cheh could provide, each with their own gimmick) are sent after him, but each falls to their death by his skills. Brother Lo soon returns back to his home only to find the eldest student who took over has taken upon the bad habits of the clan that helped destroy their master. Could it be that Brother Chow, who may or may not have been chosen as the new leader in a fair way, could have set up the death of their very own teacher? I know what I’m betting on, but I’ll just keep it to myself.
Masked Avengers came in 1981, a film featuring what may be the biggest death toll in a Chang Cheh film during it’s concluding twenty minutes. A pulse pounding and totally over the top Kung Fu free-for-all that ends the film, the last moments are worth seeking the film out for, not to mention the intriguing story that accompanies everything. Sadly, as the eighties moved on the Shaw Bros. ran into a bit of bad luck and ultimately closed it’s doors. The venoms disintegrated after their film House of Traps, but some members have continued to do the things they love and have remained in the world of cinema. Lo Meng (“Toad”), the phsyically largest and in my opinion most entertaining member of the group, has continued working in the ‘biz and has appeared in at least twenty three separate films since his last go-around with The Venoms, including the John Woo classic Hard Boiled. Lu Feng (“Centipede”) however decided his time on-screen was pretty much over after the group disbanded, starring in few films following but ultimately finding his calling as an action choreographer in Taiwan. The biggest tragedy of the group was that of Chiang Sheng (the “student”), who after his film career took to drinking and died of a heart attack in 1991. Often hailed as one of the most talented and charismatic of the group (despite his not being a full fledged ‘venom’), his death was an incredible loss to the martial world. He will always be missed. Also among those who did not do much after the Venoms were Sun Chien (“Scorpion”) who is all but a mystery to this day, and the aforementioned Wei Pai (“Snake”) who only starred in a few films after the original Five Venoms. The most active of the group has been Phillip Kwok (“Lizard”) though. Continuing to work in Hong Kong, these days he has even found work abroad working as action choreographer for the French period-era martial arts film Brotherhood of the Wolf and even taking part in the James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies”. He has kept up appearances on film and done even more behind the camera and is definitely the most visible of the group to this day.
Chang Cheh, the leader of the group, passed away in 2002, leaving behind a legacy in film that spans far beyond just his work with the Venoms. He helped mold the modern action film through Hong Kong and deserves as much recognition in his field as any director working today or in the past fifty years. His filmography is monumental and his work will continue to live on his fans hearts and still keeps bringing new leagues of film lovers into the Shaw style even now. The group has been disbanded, and sadly there’s not a bountiful amount of knowledge out there about who each member was or what their lives were like as they lived them, but the images they set in motion and the paths they helped to trailblaze were nothing short of revolutionary. If you’re one of those unlucky souls out there yet to have experienced the beauty of the poison clan, or the stylized machismo of Chang Cheh, I highly recommend you jump in the pool. The world can never have enough Kung Fu!