Benefiting from a refreshing lack of subtext, The Five Venoms treats the lore of the Wǔ Xíng as beguiling trifle, costuming its lethal assassins in polychromatic masks, each acting as avatar for the deadly strike of a predatory beast. By obscuring the identities of its malevolent forces, it channels the mystique of serial fiction, treating each minute detail of dress and technique as a building block of the mythology, garnering suspense from the urgency of battle and a sanguinary, gothic interpretation of the duality of man.
Modeling their craft after the fluid gestures of the snake and defensive dexterity of the toad, The Poison Clan possesses an unfathomable power, one so vast that any deviation from sectarial doctrine is a threat to national security. Seeking the hidden treasure of their former masters, the Venoms administer brutality in service of illicit desires, peppering a senescent tutor with enough blows to conjure blood from his lungs. As whirling fists thrust deep into his midsection, swaying in esoteric, indefensible patterns, the Clan paints the elder’s frail torso with purple palmprints, endowing the lifeless husk with a macabre calling card.
Anointing each distinct coup de grâce in opiatic slow-motion, director Cheh Chang repurposes sport as sacrament, heightening acrobatic feats and toxic blows with soft candle glow and pigmented lighting. Sonic cues and weightless wirework even transform the harsh, violent gesticulations into reverie, allowing arched hands to hiss like vipers and nimble figures to balance and repel from bamboo walls.
The fantastical elements only enhance the subtle echo of occult horror, which seeps into combat through the soundtrack, imparting a menacing chill to each ruptured eardrum and act of excerebration. The ascending and descending plucks of violin and deep, ominous fits of xylophone stoke atmosphere out of tight, stone quarters and flickering firelight, fashioning a hollow, chambered drone that would lend its paranoid bent to late-century hip-hop and cinematic homage (see Kill Bill: Vol. 1).
Despite its bizarre and nearly incongruous pairing of action trope and diabolical dread, The Five Venoms manages to manifest a sustainable universe, one shrewd enough to treat violence as deviant behavior and not the primary language of a dominant protagonist. By bestowing the role of hero on a spectator, brilliantly disguised as the village idiot, Cheh Chang has astutely modeled his comic-book examination of good and evil on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, proclaiming the victor to be the strategist that permits the corrupt and pugnacious to vanquish each other.
The Five Venoms (Shaw Brothers Ltd., 1978)
Directed by Cheh Chang
Written by Cheh Chang and Kuang Ni
Photographed by Mu-To Kung and Hui-Chi Tsao