It is not my intention to delude you people into believing that I am the be-all and end-all of motion picture criticism and commentary. There are occasional moments when I consider myself most splendiferous . . . but the Last Word? Faugh! As readable as some of you might consider me to be, let me assure you that I am still very much a student of the cinema.
Let me illustrate a for instance. Very recently I took it upon myself to delve into the world of martial arts films. I don’t mean “Enter the Dragon” or “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” or “Bloodsport” or any of the really mainstream work. I’m referring to the real Peking Opera stuff. Directors such as King Hu and Liu Chia-Liang . . . actors such as Sun Chien and Ti Lung.
I’m referring to . . .
Da da-daaa . . . da da Da da Da DA DA DAAAA . . .
Movies from the Shaw Brothers Studio (filmed in Shaw Scope, and I’m still waiting for a reasonable explanation of what Shaw Scope is).
So I explored about, gaining as much information as I could from perhaps the finest experts in the field available.
(“And what did the people on YouTube say?”)
All right, smarties. But anyway, according to the People Who Knew, if I was going to see any martial-arts film I needed to see a 1978 Cheh Chang film entitled “Wu Du” (or, to use the English name: “Five Deadly Venoms”). It was supposed to be cooler than Liu Chia-Liang’s “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” or Lau Kar-lueng’s “Executioners from Shaolin”.
Well . . .
Let’s see what kind of job I can do here describing the plot. The master of the secret Poison Clan is dying and is worried that his special martial arts knowledge is being used for purposes which are Less Than Pure. Because of this he sends his last pupil, Yang Tieh (played by Sheng Tiang) to go out and investigate and, if necessary, stop any Evil Students.
The bad news is that yes, there are Evil Poison Clan students. The worse news is that these students (five in number) attended Poison Clan school wearing disguises and keeping their identities secret not only from each other, but from the Poison Clan Master. This is how you run a martial arts school? And yes, I was thinking “Keye Luke and Philip Ahn wouldn’t have put up with this in “Kung Fu”.”
The Evil Students have each studied particular styles: Snake, Centipede, Scorpion, Lizard and Toad. Each style with its particular strengths and weaknesses. By contrast, Yang Tieh has only been taught bits and pieces of the various systems. By himself he cannot hope to defeat the “Five Deadly Venoms”; he can only come out on top by teaming up with one of the Venoms.
(And you’re going: “Gee thanks, Honorable Master”.)
Armed with a few clues, Yang Tieh arrives in a town about the time a murder is committed. In practically no time it’s realized that (A) the murderers are Snake and Centipede, (B) Toad is being set up for the crime, (C) Scorpion seems to be cutting a separate deal for himself, (D) Yang Tieh’s obviously in a fix and (E) where the heck is Lizard?
Obviously we’re not dealing with an episode of “Poirot” or “Columbo” here. Subtlety and mystery are pretty much put on the shelf for the duration. Because it’s not what the audience wants in these films. Everyone’s waiting for the moment when (to quote the marvelous Mr. Bloom) “the kung is gonna fu!” Chop whap whip strike punch . . . jump around, point, gesture, strike, counter-strike. Admittedly the audience does wonder whose side Scorpion is going to come down on, and when is Lizard going to reveal himself. Otherwise, who cares? Chop whap whip strike punch . . .
In watching this I found myself looking for what distinguished this movie from others in the genre. The choreography of action was nice. Many would consider it cheesy but, as with cheap SF or horror films, it’s best taken in context. When Philip Kwok is hanging from the walls by his feet he actually manages to make it look impressive. My only fault was that as much time was given to the less impressive move effects as this was. Action films are not obligated to be a plurality. Just because you give your top-list stunt man eight seconds on screen is not a reason to offer the same to your bottom of the barrel performer.
Story? Actually, more than the fight scenes, I enjoyed the look (realistic or stylized) which “Five Deadly Venoms” gave into the way the Chinese legal system supposedly operated back during those times. Especially Lung Wei Wang’s performance as a judge. After hearing the details of a particular case he throws a couple of colored sticks on the ground in front of the accused. “Torture him”, he advises his officers. Later on, after a suspect has been tortured and is thrown senseless onto the courtroom floor, the judge orders an officer to take a confession and sign the man’s name to it. I mean, I appreciate swift justice and all as much as the next person, but Really! And the police are either drinking or playing games or taking bribes. Small wonder martial artists tend to run rampant over the landscape in these films.
Music? With all due respect to Yung-Yu Chen I can’t remember a single piece of the soundtrack. But let’s be fair: I’ll say the same for quite a number of pre-“Little Mermaid” Disney films (and several afterwards).
(Oh don’t “boo hiss” me. Be honest . . . would you rather hear the soundtrack to “Five Deadly Venoms” or sit through Kirk Douglas singing “A Whale of a Tale”?)
Acting? Refer to my earlier “Poirot” comments. I don’t want to be totally unfair here. Obviously my education has far to go because I have heard that there’s some good roleplaying in several martial arts films. I already mentioned Lung Wei Wang, and I also want to repeat Sheng Tiang as Yang Tieh. His role sort of requires him to wander into town with his innocent Ron Howard apple pie face and still have the ability to deliver an ass-whupping. He manages this quite well (reminding me of Yue Wong’s performance in “Executioners from Shaolin”): the Innocent Lamb with the lightning fists.
(Considering the level of dubbing in these earlier films I always tend to take the translation quality with as big a salt block as I can carry, wondering how much of the original story I’m missing. Not to mention character background and development.)
Having studied a bit on the subject of Peking Opera I understand that the emphasis isn’t on Acting so much as surviving from one day to the next. The student does learn acting but, more importantly, the student learns how to perform the sort of action scenes which look so effortless in the movies (and which has doubtless provided countless emergency rooms with no end of business). I tend to appreciate both Cheh Chang and Kuang Ni for the writing job they did with “Five Deadly Venoms”; having to try and insert enough “story” and opportunities for acting while, at the same time, making room for Chop whap whip strike punch. Providing enough of an interesting and unique spin so that people won’t confuse “Five Deadly Venoms” with, say, “Drunken Swordsmaster”. It’s a juggling act, to be certain, and my hat goes off to anyone who tries it. “Five Deadly Venoms” was made thirty-four years ago, and the signs read how the genre has been growing more complex. But after watching “Five Deadly Venoms:” I find myself hoping that martial arts films never reach a point where they’re totally smoothed out. The bad dubbing . . . the stylized combat and exaggerated sound effects . . . it might seem cartoonish to a lot of people. But there’s an inescapable and appealing innocence attached to it. A sense of intense sincerity which comes out of the screen and that, I suspect, is what’s gripping the audience like a Tiger Claw hold. It’s a formula which has obviously worked (seeing as how the film is part of a 26-film “Venom Gang:” franchise) so, even if “Five Deadly Venoms” never gets mentioned in the same breath as “How Green Was My Valley”, there is still an appeal which eludes some, but so very rigidly holds on to so many more.
I actually Enjoyed the Film.