How Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob martial arts films, starting with 1978’s The Five Venoms, became cult favourites in the West
- The storylines were gory and cartoon-like, the fight scenes anything but realistic and the costumes flashy – but overseas audiences loved the Venom Mob films
- The freedom the films gave Chang to be creative with fight scenes and storytelling made him a more imaginative director, says an expert on Asian film
Chang Cheh’s films starring the Venom Mob didn’t get much attention from Hong Kong critics, but they were big hits with martial arts fans abroad.
The first of the films, 1978’s The Five Venoms, was especially popular and set the tone for the ones that followed – acrobatic, Beijing-opera-inspired martial arts which went against the fashion for realism and authentic styles, outré costumes of shiny nylon or leather which would have suited heavy metal bands, and stories that had little to do with Confucianism and more to do with torture, violent revenge and fantastical situations.
A key part of the films was their ensemble nature – all of the participating Venoms got their chance to shine.
The Five Venoms is probably still the best of the Venom Mob films, although Mortal Combat – also known as Crippled Avengers – is also a fan favourite. The movie, which was specially developed for the Venoms team by Chang’s scriptwriter Ni Kuang, features five adversaries who each specialise in a form of fictional reptilian kung fu: centipede style, which makes use of fast hand-work; lizard style, which allows the fighter to stick to walls; the vicious scorpion style, which emulates the slicing of the scorpion claws and the lashing of the tail; snake style; and toad style, in which the body is almost impermeable to blows.
The story has the combatants – sometimes concealed behind psychedelic-looking, Beijing-opera-influenced masks – fighting each other to win a secret treasure. Intrigue is followed by a twist, but it’s mainly about the fights and the torturous punishments the Venoms must endure.
Lu had attended the well-regarded Fu Sheng Drama School, an opera school focusing on Chinese opera sung in the Hokkien dialect, while Chiang had studied Beijing opera in the army and worked as a stuntman in Taiwanese films. The three martial artists were hired as bit-part players and stuntmen at Shaw Brothers.
The trio were joined by Sun Chien, a taekwondo expert recommended by Chang’s driver, and Lo Mang, a former Shaw Brothers accountant who was an expert in mantis kung fu. Kwok had already impressed Chang in Taiwan, where he won a leading role in the director’s 1975 film Marco Polo, and the quintet first worked together on Chang’s Chinatown Kid in 1977.
Their work for Chang was varied in its settings, but stuck to the formula of acrobatic martial arts, ensemble playing, and over-the-top costumes and stories. Invincible Shaolin, for instance, was a kung fu thriller about a war between two rival Shaolin groups, the popular Kid With the Golden Arm was an internecine martial arts drama, while Mortal Combat was a bitter and gory revenge story.
Why were the Mob such a big hit with US fans? The Venoms were nothing like any martial arts performers US audiences had seen before, says expert on Asian film Frank Djeng, former marketing manager of distribution label Tai Seng Films. “The Five Venoms has both mythology and mystery,” says Djeng. “Audiences were intrigued by its mysticism and exoticism.
“The martial arts styles are not based on the typical animals seen in other martial arts films, like tiger and eagle, but rather on venomous creatures like scorpion and centipede. It’s a unique film,” Djeng says.
Some of the Venoms’ success was down to clever publicity, says New York-based film historian Grady Hendrix, whose new book These Fists Break Bricks, about the martial arts movie boom in the US, is published in the autumn.
“The Five Deadly Venoms had their own unique flavour, and had far slicker production values than the Bruceploitation flicks and bottom-of-the-barrel Z-list schlock that was then clogging screens,” Hendrix says.
“But their fame broke big in America when Mel Maron’s Black Belt Theater TV packages hit the market. The first one took over the airwaves on local stations across the country in 1981 featuring not just The Five Deadly Venoms but two other Venoms Mob movies,” says Hendrix. “It made US$6 million for the company and sparked a wave of kung fu TV packages.
“Kids who liked a Venom could make their own Poison Clan masks and follow their favourite actors from film to film, all from the comfort of their living room. It’s hard to beat that kind of publicity.”
The martial arts in the Venom Mob films are acrobatic and fantastical, with a scene in Mortal Combat which involves hoops demonstrating the influence of the circus. Some Venoms films were partially choreographed by Leung Ting, a former student of wing chun master Ip Man, although the Venoms themselves contributed much to the choreography, with Kwok taking the lead.
In fact, Kwok later became an accomplished martial arts director himself, choreographing classics like A Chinese Ghost Story and Hard Boiled.
“Leung Ting’s choreography for Five Deadly Venoms was a stand-out,” says Djeng. “As one of the last disciples of Ip Man, he was able to incorporate a lot of the wing chun-like hand-to-hand movements into the sequences and make them more realistic.”
The Venom Mob films are still popular abroad, but they are held in lesser regard in Hong Kong, where the focus has always been on Chang’s exemplary earlier work.
“The Venoms are bloody, poppy, over-the-top and almost like Saturday morning cartoons gone berserk,” says Hendrix. “Chang Cheh’s early career is full of grim, gritty, gory flicks about angry young men – and occasionally women – fighting the system and going down hard.
“Around the time he hooked up with the Venoms he was in the middle of his Shaolin film cycle, but the Venoms were mostly ahistoric, and the movies they’re most remembered for brought the dark gothic feel of wuxia into the kung fu flick. Chang Cheh would ride this roller coaster into the ’80s,” says Hendrix.
The crazy world of the Venoms actually gave Chang more freedom, adds Djeng. “The films allowed Chang Cheh to be much more creative in both the narratives and the fight scenes, compared to his earlier works. In his earlier films, he’s restricted by the genre’s format. The Venoms were able to give Chang new ideas about the fights and as a result, Chang became more imaginative,” Djeng says.
In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre. Read our comprehensive explainer here.
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