The Shaw Brothers 1978 film, Five Deadly Venoms, was and still is one of the most popular and influential martial arts flics to come out of Hong Kong. The story contains many archetypical story lines and characters: the spy masquerading as bumpkin, the corrupt official and his wealthy private counterpart (in this case also the Snake), and the struggle between righteous kung fu warriors and their twisted brethren, the wushu criminals.
The plot involves a dying master tasking his final disciple, Yang De, with finding the five other disciples, Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad. There is a great, ill-gotten treasure in play, and the old master wants to make sure the righteous among his students gain the treasure. The master speaks of his Five Venom’s dojo with regret, and promises to close up shop after the treasure has been recovered and donated to charity. Too many of his disciples have “taken to the rivers and lakes” and become criminals, rejecting the moral code of the marital artist and instead using their considerable power to dominate and exploit the masses.
“Our House is a well-known threat in the martial arts world,” the master tells Yang De. “If you speak the name of our house in the rivers and lakes, you will be in great danger.”
The concept of the rivers and lakes is very interesting to me. This realm is a separate space from the court and the daily lives of the common people. The rivers and lakes are the colorful spaces within which good and evil fight it out. The court and the emperor step in when they have to, but the rulers can also succumb to the righteousness of the rivers and lakes if the court has lost the Mandate of Heaven through corrupt acts. The people are both the wards and victims of the rivers and lakes, depending. In a very ordered society like China’s—especially Song dynasty China, the period in which this movie takes place—only the rivers and lakes provide wiggle room.
All five of the master’s disciples have left the dojo for the rivers and lakes, but only two have kept to the code. The other three are in effect rogue agents disturbing the celestial order of things.
No Escape from the Corrupt Official
The theme of righteous men versus the corrupt and greedy plays throughout the film. There is one exchange in particular which outlines the very ancient and unfortunately very abiding belief in corruption as an inescapable fact of life. The exchange happens when the Snake invited the highest official in the county over to his house. At first he just hands over 5,000 taels of silver, which is a huge amount of money, with some studies suggesting that one tael of silver (roughly 35-40 grams) in the Song dynasty worth about $700 in modern currency. Faced with that much money, the official demurs, but then the Snake let’s loose with this little couplet:
Which I would translate as:
“Far and wide, anyone beseeching an official does it for wealth; we all just meet in this open space to play games.”
I find this to be one of the most thought-out lines in the entire movie. Although the language is definitely High Mandarin, and modeled after what old imperial China may have sounded like, these are two of the few lines of poetry in the movie. When taken with all of the rampant bribery in the film, the message seems pretty clear:
The world is filled with cowardly, unscrupulous men and all anyone seeks is wealth and power. Only a small minority, the righteous few, struggle for what is right and true. And the lesson at the end is, of course, that the determined few can overcome the many evils in the world. Had the Communist Party been the righteous few at this time, perhaps this film would have been the debut of the kung fu flic in Mainland China, but alas they had already become the corrupt officials China is so famous for, and so The Shaolin Temple and it’s less biting critique of authority was the film to bring Hong Kong kung fu to the Mainland audience.
There are also a few characters in the film who are found throughout Chinese stories. The first two I already mentioned, the corrupt official and the wealthy businessman. But there is also the bumbling fool who in fact is aware of everything, and in his own way moves the entire story along. Yuan De plays the fool for most of the film, but it’s all an act. His accent in the film is actually typical for the “fool who knows more than he should” - he sounds childish and his pronunciation is exaggerated and almost feminine. In Chinese lore, this is the sound of the fool. The way he eats his buns, the dirt on his face, his unkempt hair, the uncouth way he treats others and is treated in return ... all these are the common tropes and acts of the clown in Chinese storytelling.
But notice that he “trips” into the Centipede at exactly the right moment, enabling the Toad to capture him and bring the violent murderer in. He is always where he needs to be, listening to what he needs to hear, and doing his master’s bidding at all times. The soft in this case, overcomes the hard. Alone and brash, he would have ended up with a broken body and a mouth full of Shaw Brothers fake blood. But as the overlooked bum, he manages to get his way.
The Five Deadly Venoms is one of the Shaw Brothers most popular films. It as recently restored on 35mm and shown at the Drafthouse theater, where the RZA dropped name after name and let the whole audience know how much this movie meant to him, and how much of a movie buff he really is. RZA, like other NYC natives from back in the day, spent a lot of time in the theaters watching these flics and dreaming up a different life than the one he was leading at the time. The entire cast of The Black Dragons documentary also mentioned this movie was a primary influence.
The struggle of Yuan De and his kung fu brothers, the Toad and the Lizard, to fulfill their master’s wishes and restore the name of the Five Venoms House, bring about at last one final righteous act, and derail the evil the House had unleashed resonated with people living in 1970s America, especially if you were broke and downtrodden, but it shouldn’t just make waves with the old school cats. Nothing much has changed. Even now, as the Snake balefully intoned,
“... anyone beseeching an official does it for wealth ... "
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