From the early 1970’s to the early 1980’s , grind house matinees and Saturday afternoon broadcast schedules of independent television stations featured Hong Kong martial arts films (sometimes disparagingly referred to as Chop Sockies). Hong Kong based Shaw Brothers Studios were the biggest proliferators of such fare, mass producing films with assembly line regularity. Director Chang Cheh was the most prolific in the Shaw Brothers stable, and his vast filmography boasts a number of films that have amassed huge cult followings worldwide.
Five Venoms aka Five Deadly Venoms was released in 1978. Though not a box office success in its home territory, it quickly became a cult favorite in Europe and North America. It has since become a mainstay on cult film countdown lists and has exerted an influence that has permeated pop culture.
Five Element Ninjas aka Chinese Super Ninjas was released in 1982. It also contains an ensemble cast and even more outlandish set pieces. It exemplifies Cheh’s penchant for cartoonish, over the top violence and inventive plot gimmicks. Both films are exceedingly fun to watch and tickle the imagination with their B-Movie charm, but which one is the quintessential Chang Cheh bloodbath?
In Five Venoms the sickly, dying master of the “Poison Clan” sends his last remaining pupil (Chiang Sheng) on a final mission: prevent five former students from stealing the fortune amassed by an elderly colleague. This task proves easier said than done as each of the five students is in hiding and all have mastered a Kung Fu style based on a poisonous reptile or insect. They are the Centipede (Lu Feng), the Snake (Wei Pei), the Scorpion (Sun Chien), the Toad (Lo Mang) and the Lizard (Kuo Chui).
As the young pupil lacks the experience and training to take any of them on by himself, he must join forces with one of them to smoke out and defeat the others. The plot of Venoms plays out more like a mystery than an action film, as fight scenes are kept to a minimum though used effectively. Identities, intentions and alliances are revealed gradually and often come as a revelation.
Five Element Ninjas is a tale of bloody revenge. Two Chinese clans face off in a contest of martial skill. When one of the clans is soundly defeated, they enlist the help of Japanese ninjas. The ninjas challenge the winning clan to a series of showdowns at designated areas. The clan members find themselves ambushed as each area allows the ninja to employ one of the “Five Elements” (Gold, water, wood, fire and earth) to slaughter unsuspecting clan members.
Tsiau Chin Hau (Shao Tien-hao), the last remaining member, makes it his mission to master the elusive art of ninjutsu and avenge his fallen brothers. Many of the techniques displayed defy gravity and physics. The gore quotient could easily challenge that of any Giallo film. The less than convincing sets and backgrounds give the proceedings a surreal quality. All these qualities come together to create a martial arts film that is decidedly comic book in its look, feel and tone.
Five Venoms has since become the quintessential “cult” film of martial arts cinema. Its influence on Hip-Hop is readily apparent. 2pac, Wu-Tang Clan and Poison Clan have all paid tribute to the film in one form or another. It even inspired a series of Sprite commercials starring prominent female rappers of the day. Though Five Element Ninjas isn’t nearly as popular or influential, it is well regarded by genre fans and is considered one of the better Shaw Brothers productions of the early 1980’s. It’s relatively obscure status when compared to “venoms” has turned it into a much sought after gem.
The martial arts classics of the 1970’s and 80’s are considered a symbol of kitsch and camp for many. For others they are the Hong Kong Equivalent of the classic Western and gritty forerunners of modern superhero films. They are some of the more lively exploitation films you are likely to see. Both Five Deadly Venoms and Five Element Ninjas display a clash of martial skill, but whose style is the best? Which one can truly be crowned ruler of the martial world?
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