FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological, cosmological, psychological*
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Since beginning this blog I’ve occasionally touched upon the problems presented by “kung fu cinema,” principally though not exclusively represented by the groundbreaking productions of Hong Kong. Films with overt marvelous content—that is, with sorcerers, ghosts, reborn Chinese gods, et al—have no problem getting into the fantasy-film concordances. But many kung-fu films stride the uncertain threshold between the naturalistic and the uncanny—and since most concordances only recognize Western forms of the uncanny (phony ghosts, lost civilizations), Hong Kong films with an uncanny vibe simply get tossed out along with all the purely naturalistic fare.
THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS—whose title, according to DVD commentator Bey Logan, has spawned three rock-bands with derivative names—is one of the most famous kung-fu flicks in the uncanny domain. It debuted in 1978, at which time the genre’s major tropes had been well established. For a film with such a strong reputation, it’s not nearly as action-packed as other heralded movies in the genre, and it doesn’t even possess a particularly memorable hero. In fact, it might be argued that the Five Venoms of the title, most of whom are villains, are the film’s real stars.
A prologue introduces the audience to Wang Da, the nominal hero, and his kung-fu master. The master is dying of some illness when he relates how he trained five superb assassins, called “venoms” because of their deadliness. In flashbacks all of the Venoms wear ornate masks that conceal their identities from one another unless they choose to reveal them, so that most of the Venoms do not know one another on sight, any more than Wang can recognize them. The master regrets the evil that his students did as assassins, and even though they’ve all settled down and abandoned the assassin business, the master wants Wang to find the Venoms and check them out. If Wang learns that a given Venom is now living a righteous life, Wang can leave him alone; if not, Wang must kill him.
One of the biggest stumbling-blocks to this mission is that the master frankly tells Wang that though he’s trained in the same styles as the Venoms, Wang won’t be able to conquer the bad ones unless he gets help from at least one good Venom—a stipulation which pretty much telegraphs a major plot-development at the climax. On the up side of things, the master can point Wang to a specific city where another member of the order is said to have concealed a treasure—which all the Venoms want to obtain.
Once the master dies, Wang seeks out the city of the treasure-keeper and assumes the role of a lowly beggar in order to ferret out his quarry. The treasure-keeper is killed by one of the Venoms, and the local court starts an investigation. Wang fades from the story as the script—co-authored by director Chang Cheh—emphasizes the ruthless corruption of medieval Chinese society. When the city-cops can’t find the felon, the judge threatens them all with caning, and when they have a suspect, neither the judge or anyone else has any compunction against torturing confessions out of them. Not that the script is interested in unraveling identities in the style of detective-stories, either. In fact, the storyline resembles no genre as much as that of the tale of courtly intrigue.
I won’t recount any of the plot’s many complications, in which the Venoms cross paths and either form alliances or betray one another, all with an eye to unearthing the mysterious treasure. Eventually Wang finds the ally he needs and the two of them defeat the Bad Venoms—that is, those who haven’t already been killed. The plot is not the movie’s main focus anyway. The film’s focus is the exotic nature of the Venoms themselves.
I’ve mentioned the masks worn by the Venoms at the beginning of the film. Aside from the flashback sequence, only once or twice do any of the former assassins don their masks in real-time. In terms of the plots, the masks are close to being purely functional, but they’re colorful enough that the viewer is meant to remember them despite their sparse screen-time. This would be reason enough for me to classify them as "outré outfits,” even if Logan hadn’t commented that the masks give the film a potential “Power Rangers” vibe.
Many of the abilities of the Venoms also qualify as “outré skills.” While three of the Venoms possess only naturalistic skills, two have abilities far beyond this domain: “Gecko,” who practices “gecko style,” can climb walls like a lizard and cling to the walls by his feet a la Spider-Man, and “Toad” is almost invulnerable to metal blades and spikes. Logan helpfully notes that these kung-fu “super-powers” are cognate concepts based in the Chinese concept of “inner power,” or “chi.” It’s simply, Logan says, that the Gecko uses “chi” to make his body light and agile while the Toad uses the same force to make himself ultra-dense.
But are these really super-powers along the line of Spider-Man and the X-Men? I have no problem with labeling films with “chi” as marvelous if one actually sees a kung-fu practitioner tossing around enormous weights or shooting fire from his hands. But in these cases, where the idea seems like a peculiar exaggeration of a natural bodily propensity, like agility or toughness, then I tend to place them in the uncanny domain.
Writer-director Chang Cheh made a film that was later sold as if it were a sequel to VENOMS, i.e.: THE RETURN OF THE FIVE DEADLY VENOMS. The flick’s original title was CRIPPLED AVENGERS and it didn’t even have five protagonists, but four.
If VENOMS was a little slow at times, RETURN delivers on the usual expectations of a kung-fu film, in that some form of violence and/or fighting breaks out every ten-twenty minutes. It begins with two characters who will soon become the film’s villains: patriarch Dao and his son Chang. Dao’s enemies break into his home, slay his wife, and chop off the arms of his young son. A flash-forward shows Chang as a young man, by which time Dao has had metal arms constructed for his son. Chang no longer feels like a cripple with these devices, which are even capable of firing darts from the fingers .
However, like many real people who use their own travails as an excuse to inflict suffering on others, Dao and Chang become petty tyrants in their bailiwick. For one reason or another, they fall afoul of four low-class individuals, and the evildoers proceed to make each of them crippled in some way: one blind, one deaf and mute, one legless, and one reduced to a simpleton.
Just as the original Venoms were cookie-cutter characters—living embodiments of their fighting-styles, and little more—the four victims are simply embodiments of their respective injuries. Chang Cheh gives none of them any strong characterization, though naturally they all generate a certain limited degree of pathos given their gruesome situaiton. Still, the director doesn’t let any grass grow under his feet before the quartet, having become allies in a roundabout manner, receive training from a kung-fu master to allow them to compensate for their diminished abilities. I won’t detail these stratagems except to say that the legless man necessarily has to be fitted with metal legs in order to join the climactic fight against the tyrant and his son.
RETURN boasts some superbly photographed action-scenes, and falls into the “outré” domain thanks to the tropes of the kung-fu fighting blind man and of the two characters who have their normal limbs replaced by metal devices.
Though Bey Logan’s commentary on VENOMS doesn’t touch on the genesis of RETURN, his chatty asides include few facts about the last Chang Cheh film I’ll cover in this post. GOLDEN SWALLOW was a sequel to a successful 1968 film, COME DRINK WITH ME, by director King Hu. DRINK is considered by many to be the first film of the HK-KF era to spotlight a female martial-arts fighter. According to Logan, Cheh did not really like trying to figure out the dynamics of female fighters in his scenarios, even though star Cheng Pei Pei wanted to have the same quantity of swordplay given her character Golden Swallow in the first film. Apparently Cheh got his way, for in the sequel Golden Swallow is marginalized in her own film.
The central conflict is clearly that of two men fighting over the same woman. Golden Swallow trained with two men, Golden Whip and Silver Roc. The muddy exposition never makes clear how she felt about either man back in the day, but apparently Silver Roc was in love with Golden Swallow, while she was not aware of his affections. The swordswoman reunites with Golden Whip—also “in the friend zone,” though he wants to be more—because she’s become aware of a mystery killer who’s murdering bandits and leaving her the credit for the killings. Since the bandits’ friends start trying to murder Golden Swallow for revenge, she has an excellent motive for playing detective.
Not that there’s any mystery to the audience. It’s quite plain early on that Silver Roc is picking fights with bandits and killing them in Golden Swallow’s name, but it’s never clear as to why he’s doing so. The audience learns that Roc had a hard life; that he was an orphan who saw his parents killed before he ended up taking up the sword— and so one may assume that he didn’t just fall for Swallow; he became obsessed with her. Yet though he loves her, he doesn’t seem too concerned about the possibility that she might get killed because of his actions. My best guess is that he resorts to his ploy to gain her attention—though as soon as he sees her in the company of Golden Whip, his only concern is to duel his potential rival to the death, despite Swallow’s protests. I suppose Chang Cheh’s intention was to portray Silver Roc as a tormented outsider. But he’s so one-dimensional that he just comes across as a jealous jerk
Cheng Pei Pei is allowed a few piddling fight-scenes, but the director devotes most of his energies to male posturing and male-on-male battles. Only one item makes this a metaphenomenal film: one bandit-chief and his henchmen make use of explosive darts. I suppose these are essentially just fancy grenades, but they’re “outré” enough to cross into the uncanny domain.
The last film I’ll review in this post is the only one *not* directed by Chang Cheh: EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN. This time I’ll get the one metaphenomenal element out of the way first: the villain is a kung-fu master who, like a similar character in VENOMS, can manipulate his chi so as to be impervious to many attacks. However, whereas the guy from VENOMS could actually turn away edged metal, this one is simply very resistant to blows from his kung-fu opponents. He has a “weak point” in his chi-system, but he can cause this Achilles heel to shift from one part of his body to another, so that his opponent is never sure where to strike.
The conflict takes place against a historical backdrop, following the semi-legendary burning of the Shaolin Temple. The villain is similarly based in history, and a frequent character in kung-fu cinema: Pai Mei, one of whose avatars appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s KILL BILL PART 2. Pai Mei is complicit in the destruction of the Temple and has personally killed its chief abbot. The surviving students of the Temple flee and try to lose themselves amid ordinary society—but one man, Hong by name, swears to train until he can defeat Pai Wei and avenge his master.
Some good comes Hong’s way: while on the run he meets Ying, a comely young woman, also a kung-fu practitioner, though she uses “Crane” style while he’s a devotee of “Tiger” style. After an assortment of comic misadventures, Hong and his kung-fu bride are wed. There’s an attack by the new government on their place of business, so that they have to flee the company of Hong’s friends (except for one, who will later sacrifice himself to save his leader’s life). Hong and Ying manage to settle in an isolated cottage, but though they have a son, Hong’s main concern is to continue training himself until he’s good enough to beat Pai Mei. Ying suggests that she could teach him Crane style, but Hong’s pride won’t allow him to use another style. He does allow her to teach her art to their son Wen-Ding, though.
This proves Hong’s wisest move, for on two subsequent occasions, he challenges Pai Mei and is beaten. The first time, he’s able to get away thanks to his friend’s sacrifice, but the second duel spells his doom. Though he never trained Wen-Ding, Hong’s son—by this time grown to manhood—has managed to glean enough of his old man’s Tiger style to combine it with his mother’s Crane style—and then, to use both to defeat the villain.
This raises an interesting question about which character is the protagonist of the story. It’s certainly not Ying, who exists to give Hong a son. One might say Wen-Ding, since he wins the final fight with Pai Mei. But Wen-Ding has no ambitions, no life, beyond avenging his father. Therefore, even though Hong dies toward the film’s end, he is still the central character, while the members of his family exist to execute his desire for vengeance—even if his bullheaded attitude toward the “mixing of styles” is proven wrong by the actions of his wife and son.