A film critic, an accountant, an orphan and three opera students take on the martial arts world. It sounds like a plot from a crazy kung fu film in itself but, incredibly, forms the basis for the real life story of the legendary Venom Mob…
In 1970s Hong Kong, the film industry was driven by star power. Most of the big names were at some point contracted to Shaw Brothers and actors like Alexander Fu Sheng, Jimmy Wang Yu, Gordon Liu, or Ti Lung could always guarantee a crowd. As daring as certain elements of classic Hong Kong cinema still feel, the studios were rarely willing to take risks when it came to the stars, believing that audiences just wouldn’t show up if they didn’t recognise the name on the marquee. When Chang Cheh tried to pitch his Five Deadly Venoms film to the Shaws, they resisted the idea, since it involved an ensemble cast of unknowns, something unprecedented at the studio. Luckily, Cheh stood his ground and used the power he had as their most successful director, and the film got made.
Remarkably, these unknowns – soon dubbed The Venom Mob – went on to become some of the most bankable stars the Shaws had on the books. What’s interesting though is, despite being some of the most talented, charismatic and brilliant actors of the era, they never became big stars in their own rights; only ever as a group.
Between 1977 and 1984 they – in various combinations – made around thirty films, almost all of which were directed by Chang Cheh (the Professor X of the Mob, if you like). Cheh himself had started out as a film critic before moving into screenwriting and then occasional directing throughout the 1950s. His big break happened in 1967 when The One-Armed Swordsman drenched the Asian box office in blood and made both Cheh and its star Jimmy Wang Yu into viable hitmakers.
As the ’60s rolled into the ’70s, Cheh became one of the most prolific and successful directors in Hong Kong; his hyper-masculine, intensely violent and frequently homo-erotic martial arts epics were as dark in theme as they were bright in colour. He worked with (and indeed launched) many of the big Shaw stars and his run of films with Alexander Fu Sheng in the mid-70s are some of his most accessible and enjoyable.
It’s tricky to fully pin down the exact chronology of Shaw Brothers productions, since many of them were shot back-to-back and some were then shelved for years before being edited and released. As best as I can tell though, the first film that brought all of the key Venoms together was Fu Sheng vehicle The Chinatown Kid (1977), although they’d each (apart from Sun Chien) been cast in small roles before this. Something about seeing them working together on this inspired Cheh to write Five Deadly Venoms around them but who were these men, that for years seemed almost as mysterious as the masked characters in their signature film?
[Note: There’s some light contention over who qualifies as a member of the Venom Mob but I’ve stuck here with the main five. Although Pai Wei starred as Snake in Five Deadly Venoms, he didn’t appear in many other Venoms movies and switched contracts to Golden Harvest in 1979 so I’m viewing him as more as an affiliate than an actual Mob member. Ditto, Tien Chi, Wang Li, Lung Tien-Hsiang or the many other fine martial artists who appeared in several Venom movies but don’t feel like they were part of the core Venom Mob. Think of it like the difference between the Wu-Tang Clan and the Killa Bees, if that helps.]
Philip Kwok (born 1955) is perhaps the most recognizable of the Venoms and was often cast as the hero in their films. With his rugged masculine charm, reminiscent of his idol Charles Bronson, Kwok was a naturally charismatic lead. As a child in Taiwan, he trained at the Fu Sheng School, learning northern style kung fu and Taiwanese Opera (similar to Peking Opera, which anyone who’s seen Painted Faces or Farewell My Concubine will know to be gruelling in its training methods). He lost the two middle fingers on his left hand in a machining accident in 1964 but never let this inhibit his training. For several years, he worked as a street acrobat before catching the eye of Chang Cheh, who was shooting in Taiwan and on the lookout for new talent.
Kwok acted in the majority of Venom films throughout their reign and was often credited as main fight choreographer too. After the Venoms broke up, he (along with Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, and Chang Cheh) went back to Taiwan, where Kwok took to the director’s chair for Ninja In The Deadly Trap (1981), a riotous low-budget take on several Venom tropes. However, he did not enjoy the experience and soon returned to Hong Kong and the Shaw Brothers stable. Since the 80s, he’s forged a tremendous career both as a supporting actor in front of the camera (most film fans will recognise him for his ferocious turn as Mad Dog in Hard-Boiled) and as a choreographer on modern classics like The Bride With The White Hair and The Story Of Ricky.
Finest Venom moment: It’s hard to pick just one Kwok role but he’s utterly irresistible in Shaolin Rescuers (1979), where he plays one of two naive youngsters who become embroiled in a violent conspiracy between Shaolin and Wu-Tang. The fights are very elaborate with a ton of weird and wonderful weapons but Kwok also gets chance to show off his underrated comedy skills. His slapstick restaurant sparring with Lo Meng is a classic scene that’ll get any kung fu fan beaming with joy and even Kwok himself lists the film as his personal favorite. And you really don’t want to argue with Philip Kwok.
Lu Feng (born 1956) is often referred to as the villainous Venom. Although he does have the odd heroic or neutral role, you can pretty much guarantee when he rocks up onscreen, bad stuff is soon to follow (the Venoms played up to this by often kitting him out in sinister looking almost-Sith-style robes). He also studied at Fu Sheng Opera School and got into the business the same way as Philip Kwok but not a lot else is known about his personal life. By far the most publicity-shy of the Venoms, Lu Feng was also the first to retire from the industry.
After the Venoms disbanded and left the Shaws, he was seen in a few more films with his former colleagues, as well as appearing in some astonishingly lurid Taiwanese grindhouse features like Ninja Kids: Kiss Of Death (a kaleidoscopic head-trip of sex and violence, also available in a six hour version called Ninja Death!) and Ninja Condors. However, while rumors abound that he continues to work behind the scenes on fight choreography, he pretty much vanished for the public eye some time around the mid-80s. Much like the characters he played, he clearly prefers keeping to the shadows…
Finest Venom moment: Feng was always a pleasure as the bad guy and one of his standout nasties is Iron Tiger in Flag Of Iron (1980). The film is a typically bleak and bloody Cheh epic (loosely a remake of his own 1971 film The Duel) about a feud between two clans and The Iron Flag clan use exactly the kind of weapons their name would suggest. There are a few iconic flag fights in this that are magnificent to watch, evoking the best of both Peking Opera and martial arts. The climactic scene with brother against brother against brother showcases Feng’s weapons skills at their most dazzling in a three-way battle that’ll still blow minds.
Nicknamed ‘Cutie Pie’ by his fans, Chiang Sheng (born 1951) often played a sidekick or comic relief character but to say this feels like it undermines one of the most impressive and much-loved members of the group. He was the third Venom to have studied at Fu Sheng Opera School (although allegedly he was expelled for smoking!) and this bond between him, Kwok and Feng was essential to the group chemistry. Most films would end with a fight between this trio, as their coordination – built from so many years of training together – could carry off choreography that would leave other performers with their heads spinning.
When the Venoms parted ways, he continued to work with his closest Mob buddies and even takes the director’s credit on Attack Of The Joyful Goddess (1983), one of the least-seen but strangest of all Venom movies, a supernatural martial arts story with a psychedelic final act in Hell itself. What’s also poignant about this film is that it was one of the last times any of the Venoms would work together and it’s rooted in the world of Peking Opera, which is where it all began.
Sadly, not long after Joyful Goddess, Chiang Sheng found it difficult to find work and fell victim to a deep depression. After divorcing his wife, he descended into alcoholism and died far too young of a heart attack in 1991. Chiang Sheng’s may be the most tragic of all the Venoms’ stories but he leaves behind some of the greatest performances of an era.
Finest Venom moment: Sheng’s role as Wang Yi, ‘the idiot’ in Crippled Avengers (1978 and probably my favourite Venoms film) is a straight-up classic. In the story, four men who have been dismembered or disabled in some way by an evil warlord take revenge and Wang Yi is the kung fu expert who has his brain crushed in a vice until he basically functions like a five year old. Sheng portrays this in a way that’s theatrical and full of flamboyant physicality. When it comes to the final showdown, he steals the show from the others with near-supernatural acrobatics, a winning charm and some of the deadliest long-take martial arts choreography you’ll ever see.
Lo Meng (born 1956) was the muscleman of the Venom Mob and usually played a tough guy with a heart of gold (although in one film he’s a bad guy with an arm of gold, but that’s another story). In a weird precursor South Park’s Kenny he was also often the first person to die in a Venom movie and survived only a very small number of them. This was maybe a canny move on Chang Cheh’s part, in that Meng’s mighty stature often made his death scenes feel more meaningful, raising the stakes and showing that even the toughest characters could be snatched away at any given moment.
Meng’s entrance into the Venom Mob was an unusual one. Although he’d trained in Mantis style kung fu since he was 13, he was working for Shaw Brothers as an accountant when Chang Cheh (whose chauffeur was a good friend of Meng’s) admired his physique and decided to cast him. From there, he took an acting course and quickly learned his craft, going on to become one of the most enduringly popular Venoms. Even after the Mob disbanded, Meng – rather than going to Taiwan with his cohorts – stuck with the Shaws for a bit longer, moving into horror films like Human Lanterns and Hex After Hex (both 1982) and then appeared in various roles across all genres in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s (including a couple of my favorite underseen comedies, Protégés Of The Black Rose (2004) and Gallants (2010)). He even choreographed a music video for Dru Hill in the ’90s and currently enjoys success as a director of many major HK TV shows.
Finest Venom moment: It’s gotta be Five Deadly Venoms because his performance as Toad is unforgettable. In it, his special animal style means that he’s invulnerable to pain. Even blades will break or bend on his skin because he’s so tough but, unfortunately like Achilles before him, he has a weak point and when Scorpion discovers this, Toad’s (inevitable) demise is gruelling and, thanks largely to Meng’s performance, packs a rare emotional wallop in a film that (while excellent) is largely quite cold and technical.
Sun Chien (born 1955) was also known as ‘The Korean Kicker’, something of a misnomer since – while his high kicks were the stuff of legend (perhaps bettered only onscreen by Hwang Jang Lee) – he was Taiwanese. He did, however, study the Korean martial art of Taekwondo while in military school, which may explain the confusion! Having lost both of his parents at an early age, Chien was raised by his two sisters and got into the movie business after Chang Cheh went talent scouting in Taiwan and was impressed at a contest by his martial arts. Whereas the other Venoms were usually typecast as good or evil, Chien’s alignment was largely shrouded in mystique until the final third of the films, which kept even fans guessing as to whether he’d double cross the heroes or not. As a result, he’s perhaps the most diverse performer of the bunch.
When the Venoms split, Chien signed on as fight coordinator for Tomas Tang’s Filmark and began working on infamous ‘cut and paste’ ninja films like Ninja Extreme Weapons (1987), Golden Ninja Invasion (1988), and Ninja & The Warriors Of Fire (1988). It’s rumored that he ‘directed’ some of this psychotronic insanity like Vampire Raiders Vs Ninja Queen (1988) but, even if he didn’t, you can clearly see him in front of the camera in these and other Filmark classics like Robo-Vampire (1988) and Crocodile Fury (yep, 1988). While the movies are not for everyone, they still have a feverish cult following and further highlight that if there’s one way to describe Sun Chien, it’s unpredictable!
Finest Venom moment: Although Lo Meng is the titular Kid With The Golden Arm (1979), the film boasts an absolute belter of a Sun Chien performance as Mr Yang, a state government official tasked with escorting some gold to a famine area, across a forest full of bandits. It’s a classic eastern western, loaded with Venoms action of the maddest order and features a lot of swapping around from the conventional roles they play, which leaves you guessing as to who will die and how. Sun Chien owns the screen however, not just by doing his classic ‘will he? won’t he?’ allegiance trick but also by delivering an explosive, blood-soaked final fight in which he demonstrates his sky-high kicks while dressed like a leather-daddy Perry Farrell.
While I’ve used these bios as a way to try and highlight some ‘in-roads’ for beginners looking to explore the Venom Mob back catalogue, it’s worth noting that any of their films will have at least SOMETHING in them that’ll make you go “wow” and the style is always distinctive. While the fact that they worked together may have prevented them from achieving the same individual fame as the Jackie Chans or Jet Lis of the world, the collective punch they pack is phenomenal. The fact that their films now rightfully nestle alongside the big names on Netflix, iTunes, etc, is a testament to their longevity and if you’ve not yet exposed yourself to these venoms, now’s the perfect time. Poison Clan Still Rocks The World!