When film fans think Hong Kong, their mind typically envisions martial arts mania, dedicated shaolin’s kicking period piece butt with a highly skilled and disciplined vengeance. Or perhaps they fast forward a few decades, and see various gangsters and triad members shooting it out in waves of symbolic slow motion ammunition. However, it’s a safe bet that the last facet of Asian cinema they anticipate is the raincoat crowd styled sleazefest - especially when the Shaw Brothers production moniker is on the marquee. But that’s exactly the kind of flesh feasts the company experimented in, especially considering its genre jumping tendencies. A perfect example of this ideal is 1975’s Se sat sou, also known by the more sensationalized name Killer Snakes. Lovers of chop and/or socky need not apply. Instead, this Eastern promise (new to DVD from Image) delivers nothing but sin, skin, and lots and lots of reptilian scales.
When he was young, Chen Zhihong witnessed his parents’ bizarre sex practices. They’ve had a numbing effect on him ever since. Only capable of being aroused by the most serious bondage and discipline pornography, he spends his days looking at dirty magazines and his nights pursuing local prostitutes. Living in a shack near a Chinese snake peddler, he comes across an injured serpent one day. Nursing it back to health, he names it, and befriends many of its equally harmed species. After he’s robbed by a local hooker and her gang of bumbling thugs, Zhihong vows revenge. Using his snakes, he takes on the criminals. Soon, the city is abuzz, as police investigate a series of bite-related deaths. Meanwhile, our hero sinks further and further into madness. Obsessed with a local toy cart merchant, he’s horrified to learn she’s been taken in by a pimp to work in a dancehall. Naturally, with his slithery pals in hand, he hopes to set things right.
It’s hard to find an underlying theme within this otherwise grind-housed gratuity. The Shaws could have been trying to explore the growing divide among the classes of the newly urbanized Hong Kong. The focus on poor, put upon Chen Zhihong and his near homeless existence complements the constant referencing to rich pimps and ruthless businessman. However, this lowlife vs. the highfaluting dynamic is barely touched on by Snakes. Instead, the main narrative centers on our hero’s psycho-sexual distress and love of porn. Chih-Hung spends several minutes on miscreant montages, layouts from X rated magazines matching the equally erotic fantasies fouling up Zhihong’s mind. They swirl and pulsate like a teen boy’s nightly bed wettings. Toss in the virginal toy seller who winds up become a dime-a-dance gal, and the pathway to the perverted is paved with scads of sicko smuttiness.
Yet it’s the title fiends that pack the most punch. Like Willard, Killer Snakes has Zhihong rescuing an injured reptile (as in most Asian cultures, the serpent is sought for its gall bladder, which supposedly contains aphrodisiacal qualities), and once nursed back to health, the cobra becomes his best pal and familiar. Whenever his caretaker is threatened, this snake calls up his comrades and does some hilarious toss fu on the bad guys. Indeed, the one warning you will not read on this film’s credits is “No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of this Movie”. We get vipers having their organs cut out, others being stomped and thrown about wildly, and a last act attack featuring numerous creatures literally cut in half. Pro-PETA audience members will palpitate at the sight of such slaughter It makes the Italian animal torture of the Cannibal films feel tame.
If one is looking for a deeper meaning here, the snake’s stance as a symbol of virility and manliness can easily be worked into the narrative. Zhihong is constantly viewed as impotent and weak, a push over without a single macho or virile attribute. The vipers are his scrotal substitute, the figurative balls he lacks in his daily dealings. Yet even when they are taking his place in a fight or exacting revenge on those who have wronged him, this wimped out weasel can do little except crouch in a near fetal position, giggling grotesquely. It really is a noxious portrayal of one man’s dementia, and when you add in the sex and violence, it becomes an odd Shaw anomaly. It’s too bad the new digital package doesn’t provide some context to explain its role in the company’s creative canon.
For anyone who’s a fan of the glorious days of American exploitation, however, Killer Snakes plays like a reunion with a favorite film friend. The taboo busting extremes in some of the scenes (a classy whore is ripped to shred by a pair of komodo dragons) fall lockstep into similar manic moments offered by the likes of Harry Novak and David F. Friedman. Even better, Chih-Hung uses the traditional view of human reproduction as a starting point for more and more disrespect. It’s clear that this film looks down on white slavery, and challenges the concept of women selling themselves for money. And yet, do these gals deserve to be raped by snakes? In the pure patriarchy of the old world East, such a chauvinistic system is seen as normal. Killer Snakes tries to make it as vile as possible.
It all adds up to a filthy ball of fun that changes the perception of the Shaws as much as it exemplifies their studio’s many filmmaking facets. Innocence is corrupted, not saved. Weirdness is celebrated, not sheltered. Nature remains the ultimate decider of fate, and humans who fail to fulfill their promise end up with several hundred fang marks in their face. There will be some who grow bored when Chih-Hung calls on another breast accented montage to probe his character’s madness, and some will be shocked by the full blown fatalistic ending. But Killer Snakes is meant to be an earnest example of excess, not a realistic depiction of human horrors. And for those of us in sync with the 42nd Street freakiness of decades past, we wouldn’t want it any other way.