The finest year in the history of kung fu flicks? No doubt about it… 1978. Yep, while America was busy creeping out to Christopher Walken’s Russian Roulette playing whack- job in The Deer Hunter and humming along to the goofball, whitebread, Middle- American pop garbage of Grease, Hong Kong was busy producing some of the finest films the genre has ever seen. Three in particular stand out as definitive classics, Jackie Chan’s first mega-hit Drunken Master, Master Killer (36th Chamber of Shaolin, and the ultimate cult classic Five (Deadly) Venoms. All three are high watermarks for their respective directors, Yuen Wo-Ping, Lau Kar-Leung and Chang Cheh.
First up to the table is Yuen Wo-Ping’s Drunken Master. This movie is the grandfather of all kung fu comedies (and there are a lot of them.) This film’s mixture of Jackie’s patented doofiness and blistering martial arts action practically wrote the blueprint for Jackie’s international stardom. The only thing it lacks is some of Jackie’s neck- breaking, skull- fracturing stunt work. This omission, however, is offset by the addition of two scene stealers into the cast, Simon Yuen Siu-Ting (Yuen Wo- Ping’s father) and Hwang Jiang-Lee (a Korean guy notable for probably being the best leg- fighter of the seventies.) Yuen plays Beggar So, the titular drunken master, with a wobbly grace that belies his advanced age. And although he is doubled for extensively, his skills still shine through perfectly. Martial ability aside, Yuen’s real gift to the film is his performance. Throughout the film he just sits around (when he’s not fighting people, that is), gets drunk (which he does WHILE fighting people) and tortures Jackie (in order to get HIM to fight better)
The man is funny doing all three. What more could you ask for?
Well, Hwang Jiang Lee, for one thing. He plays the baddass in this one and, although it’s not even close to one of his best performances, he displays enough in this flick to let you know the man can KICK. An early gem from Yuen Wo- Ping who would go on to make such films as The Tai Chi Master and the classic Iron Monkey (1993).
Lau Kar- Leung’s Master Killer (36th Chamber of Shaolin) is unquestionably one of the finest martial arts films of all time. This film tells the story of the Shaolin Monk who opened up the teachings of Shaolin Kung Fu to the world. This monk, San Te, played by Lau Kar- Fai, enters the temple to escape the clutches of the evil Manchus, and then stays in order to learn kung fu and (quite shockingly in a MA movie) get revenge. Now, this isn’t some sign- up- now- and- you- get- a- free- black- belt way to learn boxing. This is some serious, blood- thirsty, brutalizing, piss- your- pants training. Y’see there are these thirty- five chambers at Shaolin and if you work your way through all thirty- five, you certifiably know your stuff.
The thing is, each and every one of these chambers SUCK, officially. My personal favorite, I call it "the head butt room", consists of nothing but smashing your head into these heavy bags that hang from the ceiling. It’s supposed to build you up to absorb punishment or something, but what type of punishment, I’m not sure… maybe a cannonball to the face? Blood and guts aside, this film, directed by Lau Kar Leung, is an awesome spectacle filled with ingenious training sequences, cool visuals and well choreographed fights.
Put it this way, this movie is so cool the Wu Tang Clan named an album, Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), and one of themselves, "Masta Killa", after it. Would you tell Ol’ Dirty (Big Baby Jesus?) that you didn’t like it?
That piece of praise aside, my favorite flick amongst the three would definitely have to be Five (Deadly) Venoms. Everything you could ever want from ’70’s kung fu is in this Chang Cheh directed assassin- fest; wild kung fu powers, colorful costumes, crazed murder techniques and plenty of good ‘old violent mayhem are all present and accounted for. Plus, as an added bonus, this movie has a heck of a plot. The Venoms, known only by their code names; Snake, Scorpion, Centipede, Toad and Lizard, are all former members of the assassin guild known as "The Poison Clan." They were trained by this master who is dying (he is only kept alive by this steam bath type contraption) and he fears that his make- the- CIA- jealous murder skills are being used for evil, so he sends his last student to find and stop The Venoms. The thing is, even the master doesn’t know their real names, what they really look like (they wear these crazy hoods) or where they currently are. To further complicate matters, none of the Venoms themselves know more than one other Venom (Snake knows Centipede but doesn’t know Scorpion, Toad or Lizard, etc.) Chang Cheh handles all of this cloak and dagger stuff with real skill, which makes the film interesting even when they aren’t fighting, which is a big plus for films from this period.
Two more nuggets from this film and then it’s au revoir; first, there is a scene with an Iron Maiden in it that is totally relevant to the plot (a rare occurrence I’m sure) and, second, one of the Venoms is played by Philip Kwok (Kuo-Chui). He was the stunt coordinator and played the memorable role of "Maddog" in John Woo’s love letter to ultraviolence, Hard Boiled.
"Poison Clan Rocks the World!"
This article first appeared in Shovel Magazine #2. January/February 1998.