Does it get any cooler than a Flying Guillotine?
In case you’ve made it this far into your life without intimately familiarizing yourself with the device, a flying guillotine is a ranged weapon that resembles a hat with a long chain attached. Once flung onto (and over) an enemy’s head – a move that would take rather incredible aim – the thrower yanks on the chain, which then pulls together a series of blades that slice the head clean off. In fact, the chain even allows you to retrieve the head after slicing. No fuss, no muss. Oh! And there are blades on the outside as well, in case you just want to use it as a particularly unwieldy mace.
Wikipedia says the Flying Guillotine dates back to the Qing dynasty (which ended in 1912), but that could easily be a load of crap. As recently shown on Mythbusters, the weapon – as presented in film – doesn’t really make much sense, though it’s still an awesome idea and makes for a great, visual movie weapon. In fact, audiences went nutty for its introduction in the 1975 Shaw Brothers film THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, which covers the (fictionalized) creation of the weapon, and it’s since been used sparingly – but consistently – in a variety of productions, including a sequel to THE FLYING GUILLOTINE titled PALACE CARNAGE (but generally known, of course, as FLYING GUILLOTINE 2). And why not? If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that a head being sliced off is super cool.
The other thing we can all agree on is that the very best of the Flying Guillotine films is MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, directed by (and starring) Jimmy Wang Yu. After breaking his contract with the Shaws – where he became famous in films like THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN and THE GOLDEN SWALLOW – Jimmy was banned from making films in Hong Kong. He headed to Taiwan where he made a series of movies both independently, and with Golden Harvest. As the 70s came to an end, so did much of Wang Yu’s popularity, and he became a controversial figure due to reported underworld connections, murder allegations and other assorted nuttiness. But before that, he directed films of widely varying quality.
MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is a fascinating film for a variety of reasons, but it’s interesting to note that despite its title, it’s actually a sequel. In fact, it’s a sequel to two films, though one unofficially (and tangentially). Wang Yu had tremendous success with ONE ARMED BOXER in 1971 for Golden Harvest, and MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE originally had the title ONE ARMED BOXER VS THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, since it was a direct sequel to that earlier film – even including flashback scenes from it. But it’s also a crossover film with the Shaw Brothers original THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, making it closer to an ALIEN VS PREDATOR scenario, except not completely terrible. Of course, it helps that the star of THE FLYING GUILLOTINE wasn’t an actor, but instead a weapon which was slightly re-designed for its use in Wang Yu’s film. Oh, and that’s not all! There’s also a prequel film known as FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINE which gives the origin of the evil master in this film.
But who is this master of the flying guillotine? He’s actually a blind assassin during the Qing Dynasty taking revenge for the killing of his two students by Liu Ti Lung, the One-Armed Boxer in – of course – THE ONE ARMED BOXER. His weapon of choice is the titular FLYING GUILLOTINE, and his introduction shows him demonstrating his skill before burning his mountain-top home to the ground. He’s also disguised himself as a monk, complete with swastika and ridiculously long eyebrows. This is not a man you want to fuck with.
Meanwhile, things are going pretty well for the One Armed Boxer, aside from the whole only having one arm thing. He has a school full of eager, young students that he runs with his brother. He gets to show off his skills, like his astounding breath control which allows him to walk up walls and along the edges of a basket. While these skills skirt the edge of the supernatural, the martial arts in the film – while varied – is actually pretty down to earth, thanks to the legit cred of choreographers Lau Kar-wing and Lau Kar Leung. The otherworldly touches, like the flying guillotine itself, is just to give the film some much needed flavor. It seems that there’s a huge fighting tournament taking place at a nearby arena, and the One Armed Boxer has been invited to take part. Liu Ti Lung rejects the idea entirely, though agrees to accompany his students to the tournament to watch the bouts.
So, our old, blind monk assassin is Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kang Chin, who was neither blind nor old), and he heads into the city to try and track down Ti Lung. Stopping at a restaurant, he encounters a one-armed beggar who, when attempting to get out of paying for his meal, brags that he’s the famous One Armed Boxer. BIG MISTAKE. In a flash the monk takes his head, before discovering that he’s killed the wrong man. Remorseless, he promises to kill any one armed men he happens to come across..
Hey! How about some fights? We now come to the tournament section of the film, and it’s just a massive amount of fun. Mixing different styles and personalities – though most are firmly grounded in kung-fu – this is just a solid mass of interesting choreography. There’s a lot of participants, though only a few will end up being important. I’ll list the fights with some brief thoughts:
1. Long Spear Chang Chia Yu (Lau Kar-wing) vs Long Stick Ho Po Wei – Despite being called “Long Spear”, Chang Chia Yu (played by the legendary Lau Kar-wing) actually fights with a three sectioned staff. He wins against the pole fighter quite easily in a short fight.
2. Fast Sword Wang Chang vs Win-Without-a-Knife Yakuma (Lung Wang) – Yakuma is a Japanese fighter, and uses a set of batons as his weapon of choice. His nickname is a bit of a joke, as his clubs spout daggers which he uses to finish off his opponent in gruesome fashion.
3. Braised Hair Cheung Shung Vee (Hau Pak-wai) vs The Mongolian Tieh Cheng (Ho Wai-hung) – It’s the Mongolian fighter’s massive strength vs Shung Vee’s, uh, hair. And it’s a lot closer than you might expect. The fight ends with both competitors dead, Cheng having been choked to death and Cheung Shung Vee nearly ripped to pieces.
4. Daredevil Lee San (Sun Jung-chi) vs Iron Skin Niu Sze – One of the better fights, with Lee San pulling out plenty of impressive acrobatics before having his legs broken by the powerful Niu Sze. Just as it looks like he’s about to lose, he yanks out his opponents eyeballs! Ick! That’s a big win for the daredevil.
5. Eagle Claws Wu Shao Tieh (Doris Lung) vs Monkey Boxer Ma Wa Kung (Wang Tai-lang) – Wu Shao Tieh is the daughter of the event organizer, and the film’s barely developed love interest. She’s a capable fighter in her own right, though the star here is Wang Tai-lang doing some great monkey boxing, before having his clothes ripped away, leaving him to run off nearly naked. A really fun fight.
6. So Leong vs Flying Rope Chao Wu – So Leong asks for the fight to take place on top of poles, with swords set up as a crude spike pit beneath the two fighters. Leong uses a sword with a curved blade, while Chao Wu uses a rope, but it’s So Leong who eventually dies on the blades. So long, So Leong!
7. Tornado Knives Lei Kung vs Yoga Tro La Seng (Wong Wing-sang) – Most people who are aware of MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE remember the character of Tro La Seng most of all, since he has the unique ability to stretch his arms to ridiculously lengths to attack his opponents at a distance. Clearly an influence on the character of Dhalsim in the Street Fighter video games, the effect is actually very well done. He wins easily against Lei Kung.
During the fight, the tournament organizer sends a letter to Liu Ti Lung, asking him to enter the tournament. Realizing that he’s become a distraction, Ti Lung actually leaves the arena and returns to his school. Yeah, we’re past the half way mark, and our star hasn’t even fought yet! Of course, considering Wang Yu’s sometimes limited martial arts abilities, it’s perhaps not right to complain. Back to the tournament!
8. Tiger and Crane Fists, Lee Kun Man vs Nai Men (Sham Chin-bo) – Nai Men is a fighter from Thailand, and not only uses many of the legitimate customs from Thai boxing, but also fights appropriately using his knees and elbows. He’s a great character, and has little trouble kicking the piss out of Lee Kun Man.
9. One Armed Snake Fist, Hsien Hsing vs Praying Mantis, Tung Erh – Wait, did someone say ONE ARMED SNAKE FIST? After Hsien Hsing’s easy victory, the vengeful monk enters the arena and slices off his head! That’s going to play havoc with the second round.
I’m just kidding, of course. The tournament is immediately called on behalf of decapitation, with the event organizer mightily upset at this interloper ruining things. The organizer attempts to fight off Fung Sheng Wu Chi, but is soon killed before the monk throws bombs at the stage and surrounding areas, destroying them. The organizer’s daughter Wu Shao Tieh is injured in the ruckus, but is whisked away by Yakuma.
Back at the school Ti Lung is told about the events at the tournament, and he works out – somehow – that he was supposed to be the target. He decides to disband the school until all of this can blow over, but before his students can leave they are visited by the Thai boxer Nai Men who threatens Ti Lung and admits to now working with the evil monk. Ti Lung’s brother has a quick fight with Nai Men, before the blind monk smashes through a window, immediately killing one of the students before targeting the One Armed Boxer. Ti Lung heroically runs away, as do the rest of his men.
It seems that Yakuma has kidnapped Wu Shao Tieh so he can whisk her back to Japan and make her his wife. He ignores her protestations, and it’s interesting to note that the remaining bad guys in the film – aside from the Master of the Flying Guillotine – are all foreigners. Not that martial arts films are strangers to xenophobia. Ti Lung wanders by while Yakuma is out and rescues her, telling her to wait at a safe-house through a nearby cave.
Back at the school, Ti Lung is by himself when yoga master Tro La Seng shows up – with an owl on his shoulder for some reason – and we get the first real fight from Ti Lung in the film, though it’s ably assisted by his stretchy limbed opponent. Tro la Seng’s limbs stretch telescopically, stretching out before locking back into their original length. It’s a shame that this is the character’s final appearance, as Ti Lung first breaks his arm before kicking him against a wall – killing him.
Later Ti Lung is relaxing with Wu Shao Tieh as they watch a woodcutter unsuccessfully attempt to slice a piece of bamboo with an axe. Instead, it destroys the blade. Instead of developing the half-baked love story, Ti Lung comes up with a plan to beat the flying guillotine. But first he needs to visit a local blacksmith, before hiring a nearby coffin shop. What is that One Armed Boxer up to?
First, Ti Lung wants his brother to lure the Thai Boxer Nai Men to their safehouse. They do so by playing some Thai music in the town square, before leading him through the cave and into the house. Once inside, he discovers that the floor boards have been replaced with metal sheets. Not only that, but Ti Lung’s students have set fires all around the perimeter, heating this metal to a skin melting temperature. Nai Men tries to escape the house, but the students are waiting at each window with spears, forcing him to fight Ti Lung one-on-one while his feet sear on the floor. Ick. Of course, Ti Lung is wearing protective shoes. How sadistic! Needless to say, Nai Men is eventually beaten and burned to death.
This leads directly to another fight between the One Armed Boxer and the Japanese fighter Yakuma, who has also been hired by the evil monk. Despite using his batons with hidden spears, Ti Lung wins thanks to his own hidden dagger which is hidden inside his shirt. This whole sequence is awfully dishonorable, but hey.. a win is a win.
Finally, we get the main event. A villager has guided Fung Sheng Wu Chi through the cave (and has gotten blown up for his efforts), and we get a confrontation between the One Armed Boxer and the Master of the Flying Guillotine. Initially, Ti Lung hides in a grouping of bamboo that he’s set up, avoiding the guillotine as it dulls itself by slicing into the bamboo. Running back through the cave, Ti Lung continues to lure the monk, eventually trapping him inside a pet shop filled with birds – the constant noise and tight quarters frustrating the blind master. Eventually, he smashes through the wall into the coffin shop, where things finally come to a head. Using his ability to walk up walls (remember?), Ti Lung hides along the ceiling while throwing rocks at various coffins to draw the monk to throw his weapon. These coffins have been booby trapped with spring loaded axes, which slowly slice the guillotine master into a bloody mess. Unwilling to relent, Ti Lung finally shoves an axe into the monk’s stomach, causing a stream of blood to shoot out his back, before punching him THROUGH THE CEILING and into a conveniently waiting coffin. Yeah, this is most certainly THE END.
Upon its American release in 1977, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE quickly – thanks to a great ad campaign – amassed a rabid following thanks to its mix of heightened kung-fu action, extreme violence, and its strange soundtrack – filled with instrumentals by Neu!, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk. The film still echoes throughout popular culture, from the use of music in KILL BILL to quotes and mentions in the albums of the Wu-Tang Clan, though the film isn’t without flaws. The choreography, while interesting, is choppy, with fights relying heavily on gimmicks rather than the abilities of the actors. Similarly, Jimmy Wang Yu makes for a bland and flavorless lead, his stoic expression and mannerisms making him difficult to root for. He’s continually upstaged by the flying guillotine itself, though perhaps that’s for the best.
Still, it’s such an action packed film full of grindhouse thrills that it seems tailor made for a packed theater. Wang Yu’s direction is excellent, making great use of interesting angles and competently hiding some of the more iffy special effects. He does make use of dropping frames in order to speed up action, and it’s consistently distracting, but generally he captures the action very well, and focuses strongly on the most interesting elements – throwing as much as possible at the screen while keeping the surrounding plot as simple as possible. Perhaps not a great kung-fu film, it’s still a wonderful piece of martial arts nuttiness, and a crucial piece of many American fans’ education.
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