Web of Death

It wouldn’t be difficult to interpret The Web of Death — the third in director Chor Yuen’s long cycle of films adapting contemporary popular wuxia novels — as something of a cold war parable. In it, a Martial World clan by the name of The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of a super-weapon so powerful that the clan’s leader has decreed that it should be put under wraps and hidden away for the good of the Martial World as a whole. That weapon, the Five Venom Spider, is revealed to us in the film’s opening minutes, and that’s a good thing; while definitely kind of neat in a cheeseball sort of way, the Five Venom Spider is not the kind of thing that could live up to an extended build-up. What it is, in fact, is a normal-sized tarantula that, when released from its ornate cage, glows green, emits the roar of a raging elephant, and then shoots a deadly, electrified web to the accompaniment of much billowing of smoke and flying of sparks. It’s a weapon that will be deployed to amusing effect throughout Web of Death, but which has the unfortunate side effect of saddling Chor with a conclusion in which a room full of fighters who have been established as the Martial World’s bravest and most accomplished cower away from a spider. But more about that later.

As the films opens, a number of the Five Venom Clan’s chiefs — including the Snake Chief, Liu Shen, played by Lo Lieh — are beseeching its leader to allow that the Five Venom Spider be brought out of mothballs. It seems that, since the weapon was taken out of play, the clan has fallen somewhat in the eyes of its peers, which is not surprising. You see, the clan has sort of made the Five Venom Spider its whole “thing”. This is evident not just from the clan’s name, but also from the fact that both their palatial lair and their garments are covered with spider and web motifs. So the whole situation is similar to if the United States’ flag, rather than being covered with stars and stripes, was instead covered with atomic symbols and mushroom clouds, and then we tried to present ourselves as a model of restraint. In that case I think even the most lily-livered country would be justified in snickering at us behind its hand a little bit.

Of course, the Five Venoms leader, being a man of principle, refuses to back down. This turns out to be of no matter, however, because, as we will soon learn, Liu Shen is screwing the leader’s wife (Angela Yu Chien), and is secretly plotting with her to obtain the spider for himself so that he can rule the Martial World. Now, I’m unclear whether, in the universe of these wuxia stories, the Martial World comprises the entire world, or is just a discreet part of the larger world. I mean, is there still a Europe and an Africa, for instance, with just a large chunk of Asia delineated as the Martial World? If this is the case, the greater, non-martial world has nothing to fear from the Martial World, because its inhabitants are way too busy warring amongst themselves for dominance to bother with anything going on beyond its borders. This is what they’re all about, you see.

Coming at this early stage, Web of Death is something of a transitional film in Chor’s wuxia series. It lacks the rough, exploitation movie edge of his earlier Killer Clans — which I think was the result of Chor being influenced by the types of films that were coming out of Japan at the time — and, to a much lesser extent, The Magic Blade, while at the same time being not quite as mannered and dreamlike as his next feature, the more distinctly Chinese-feeling Clans of Intrigue. That latter film would set the tone for all of Chor’s wuxia adaptations to come, one that would be crystallized by the time of films like Murder Plot, and would approach the point of self parody with the ridiculously convoluted and stylized-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber movies. While, like those later films, Web is not without its elements of romance and tragedy, those elements are not as heady and enveloping as they would become, nor is the world that the director creates on screen so completely sealed off from reality. Yes, the set-bound exteriors with the conspicuously phony-looking painted-on moon and clouds are still there, but not at the expense of a certain amount of actual location and back lot shooting.

This is not to say that all of those thing that would become hallmarks of Chor’s swordplay films are in short supply in Web of Death. To the contrary, I think that fans of his films will be more than satisfied with the number of beautiful and atmospheric sets, Bava-esque green and red lighting schemes, frequent and often spectacularly staged fight scenes, and the abundance of exotic weaponry on display. After all, in this last regard alone, there is not only the Five Venom Spider itself, but also the centipede-shaped sword wielded by the Centipede Clan’s chief, the Venom clan’s array of poisonous darts and vapors, Lo Lieh’s snake-shaped bazooka (for lack of a better word), and an entire clan of fighters equipped with flaming metal gloves. To my mind, the most interestingly conceived of these death-dealers is the Venom Clan’s “Poisonous Nether Flower”, which is capable of turning a person’s actual blood into a weapon against the spider — although once that blood is released, it will not stop flowing until its owner is completely drained.

Added to this is the fact that Web of Death compensates for the comparative lack of its successors’ swoony romanticism with a surfeit of something fairly unique to the series: the type of cheap “B” horror movie thrills seemingly derived more from 1950s American drive-in fare than from the Chinese folklore that martial arts films typically look to for their spook-show elements. This is again, of course, largely due to our friend the Five Venom Spider. Both the whirlwind of crude special effects he stands at the center of and the rigors that cast and crew alike put themselves through to convince us that he’s scary make this whole enterprise seem like spiritual kin to the work of shlockmeisters like Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon. As a result, the movie is lent a sort of ragged, three-legged-dog charm that’s far from what Chor’s other more stately and genteel offerings typically convey.

Another thing that sets Web of Death apart from most of the other films in Chor’s wuxia catalog is the fact it is one of a very few of those films not to star either Ti Lung or Derek Yee as its hero. Instead we here get Shaw mainstay Yueh Hua, who also had a prominent role in Killer Clans that same year. Probably Hua’s earliest claim to fame was starring opposite Cheng Pei Pei in King Hu’s game-changing martial arts classic Come Drink With Me. He would go on to become a prolific Shaw player, appearing in dozens of the studio’s productions. And while Web of Death marked the last time he would take top billing in one of Chor’s wuxia movies, he would take substantial supporting roles in a number of those that followed, including Clans of Intrigue with Ti Lung and Death Duel with Yee. While an adequate performer, Hua lacks the charisma of Ti Lung — as well as the striking, teen idol good looks of Derek Yee — and, because of that, largely fails to register in Web of Death. Of course, to give the actor his due, it takes a star with an extraordinarily forceful presence to stand out in one of these movies, given the small army of characters they have to compete with for attention, as well as the distractions provided by the relentless, rapid-fire convolutions of the plot.

In any case, Yueh Hua’s low-impact performance has the effect of handing the film over to his leading lady, an actress who would prove to be a constant and legitimizing presence in Chor’s swordplay epics, Ching Li. Ching’s character here is one of the female archetypes of wuxia cinema: the “headstrong” girl who, despite her noble upbringing, insists on being part of the action — all the better to put in practice her formidable martial arts skills. In this case she is Susu, the daughter of the Five Venom clan’s leader, who enacts her rebellion by way of a ruse that is also archetypal in wuxia cinema. She masquerades as a man, albeit in a manner that makes it more than obvious to the viewing audience that she is anything but, while everyone else on screen, despite this evidence, takes it as a given.

Granted, Susu’s guise as a grubby male beggar, while not convincing at all, is a lot more so than the typical wuxia movie version of cross-dressing, which simply involves a glamorous actress in full makeup wearing pants and being referred to as “lad” and “sir” by everyone she encounters. It also helps that these sequences are contrasted with those in which Susu appears in her undisguised form, as a radiant beauty made even more so by Chor’s employment of all the old school glamour-imbuing tricks of his trade, swathed in a series of diaphanous gowns. However, it is not just by virtue of her enchanting presence that the actress ends up taking charge of Web of Death, but also as a result of the fact that, at the film’s close, it is her character’s actions, more than those of any other in the film, that prove to be the most heroic.

First in her beggar drag, and then as herself, Ching’s Susu ends up assisting Yueh Hua’s swordsman character, Fei, in his mission to find the truth regarding the Five Venom Spider. Liu Shen and the master’s wife, in their quest for the weapon, have spread a rumor that the Five Venom Clan is again contemplating its use, hoping that, by doing so, they will incite members of the rival clans to try to track it down for themselves, thus doing the hard work of divining the weapon’s hiding place for them. It is for this very reason that Fei, the eldest student at the Shaolin Temple, has been sent forth by his master. Over the course of the film, his journey will have him continually crossing swords with those rival clans — both in dreamlike, fog-enshrouded marshes and cavernous, surrealistically-lit tombs fraught with elaborate booby traps — while fending off all of the depredations that Lo Lieh at his cackling bad guy best can visit upon him. At some point, Fei’s younger brother, Yingjie (Wong Chung), also joins in the search, joined by a young female disciple, Quixin (Lilly Li Li-Li), who makes no secret of her affection for Fei. As might be expected, all of the rivalries, jealousies and complex betrayals that we’ve come to count on from the denizens of Chor’s Martial World will come into play to make sure that the road to Web of Death‘s conclusion will be far from a straight and narrow one.

If this all sounds complicated, it is. But to be truthful, Web of Death‘s narrative is actually one of the more transparent ones as far as Chor’s wuxia movies go. If you pay attention, it’s relatively easy to keep track of who’s who, who’s doing what to whom, and why they’re doing it, which, in the case of, say, the aforementioned Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, would be a truly Sisyphean task. Of course, because this is a Chor Yuen film we’re talking about, you can also just choose to abandon any efforts to follow what’s going on and simply immerse yourself in all the gorgeous art direction and well-staged action. Honestly, you’ll probably end up enjoying it just as much. It’s a win-win, really.

In Web of Death‘s final act, Lo Lieh and his minions finally get their hands on the film’s much ballyhooed doomsday device, putting it to its ultimate test at a summit held by their rivals at the headquarters of the Wudang clan. And, as I alluded to before, it is here, in the film’s conclusion, that Web of Death runs up against its biggest flaw. You see, the typical Chor Yuen wuxia movie rewards you for the effort of keeping track of its many characters by giving you a climax in which you get to see almost all of those characters fighting each other in a wild and protracted sword battle, complete with lots of crazy acrobatics and people spitting up candy-apple-red blood. Here, we indeed get to see all of the characters brought together, but instead of fighting, they’re all cringing and clawing at their faces in terror as a little spider crawls across the floor toward them. And keep in mind that this is the Martial World we’re talking about, and that all of these characters’ lives are defined by both their constant proclaiming and demonstration of their fighting prowess — which, furthermore, we have paid more than ample witness to over the previous eighty-or-so minutes.

Granted, all of this is amusing for its unintentional absurdity, but Chor Yuen isn’t Ed Wood. That kind of campy hilarity isn’t normally what I turn to his films for. As a result, I expect that this sequence might make the film a little bit of a disappointment for anyone coming to it with expectations based on the director’s other work. For those coming to it unburdened by expectations, however, it’s actually kind of awesome, filled with cheap gore effects, a spider roaring like an elephant, and lots of people shooting lightning bolts out of their hands via crude, drawn-on animation.

So, ultimately, The Web of Death is one of those martial arts films in Chor Yuen’s catalog that is inessential, but nonetheless enjoyable. It provides a nice break for completists like myself, who have had to suffer through far worse in their mission to watch every single one of the man’s films. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to his movies, I think it’s well worth checking out for those who have already made their way through all of his top tier works. Especially those who felt that those works didn’t bare a strong enough resemblance to Earth vs. The Spider.