[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
It’s hard to believe that I’m entering my third year of doing this column. While I absolutely have enough films to last another few years before running out, it’s getting to the point where I want to cover films I haven’t seen before. There are a ton of classic Hong Kong movies I never got around to buying because I was a kid that had little of his own income. My mom did purchase a majority of the DVDs I had, but I couldn’t rely on her forever.
Anyway, to kick off this third year, I figured we’d finally wind things back to the very first Kung Fu film I ever saw. As I’ve mentioned a few times in passing, Master of the Flying Guillotine was the film that jumpstarted my appreciation for martial arts mayhem. I’m sure if humanity had access to brain probing and could accurately retell our memories, I’d find out I watched Kung Fu films before this, but Jimmy Wang Yu’s legendary sequel to One-Armed Boxer is responsible for me now spending $1,000 on Blu-Rays.
Master of the Flying Guillotine has a major cult following that grew over the years from bootleg VHS copies and rare showings at theaters. The original film stock is in horrible shape, so many thought the movie would become lost to time. Thankfully, in 2002, Pathfinder Home Entertainment would release a DVD that preserved the film in what is probably the best possible video transfer it could get. That’s not to say things are great, because the colors often fluctuate and the picture is rarely sharp, but this is as close to perfect as you’re likely to see for this treasure.
Written and directed by previous Shaw Brothers star Jimmy Wang Yu, Master of the Flying Guillotine was released in 1976 as a loose sequel to 1971’s One-Armed Boxer, which was something of an homage to his star-making role in 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman. The history between Wang Yu and Shaw Brothers is a messy one as the star was instrumental in not only cementing the studio’s fortunes but catapulting the rise of martial arts films in China. The Chinese Boxer was such an immense success that many, many imitators would follow.
This history isn’t necessarily important to the plot of Master of the Flying Guillotine, but it does explain why fans have become so taken with it. Wang Yu is a legend in his own right and while his martial prowess is perhaps not the greatest of his contemporaries, his ability to stage dramatic fights and move with intense speed gave his movies an indelible charm. That charm is on full display here, because even with the thinnest of plots imaginable, I’m still very much in love with this movie.
The whole thing begins with a blind monk sitting at his dojo practicing his skills while narration explains the flying guillotine weapon. A letter arrives that explains how two students of his monk were killed at the hands of Yu Tien Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), a one-armed boxer. The monk reveals his name to be Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong) and sets out on a revenge quest for his pupils. Strangely, this is one of the only Kung Fu films I can recall that has a reverse revenge plot with the villain seeking vengeance on the hero. It also makes for some great cat and mouse scenes later on.
Even with that setup, the film shifts to Lung’s martial arts school to set up even more plot. A local tournament of masters is happening near the school and Lung’s students want him to enter. As the Chinese government during the film’s time period was looking to hunt down and execute supporters of the former Ming Dynasty, of which Lung was one, he turns down the offer as he doesn’t want to attract attention. He eventually comes to a compromise of letting everyone attend as spectators to learn some new tricks.
That’s really it for the plot, though. Once all of that is out of the way, Master of the Flying Guillotine is basically fight after fight with little filler in between. There are a couple of bouts spread throughout the first 30 minutes of the film, but the middle act is a tournament not dissimilar to Enter the Dragon which has like seven fights in the span of 15 minutes. Most of them end with someone dying because this is a Kung Fu film.
While we don’t get to learn about anyone’s motivations for participating, we do get continually escalating stakes until it culminates in a fighter that would go on to inspire Street Fighter 2’s Dhalsim. Some man from India with extendable arms absolutely dominates another fighter and it’s every bit as goofy and stupid as that description sounds. I have no idea how he can expand and contract his limbs, but it’s definitely a battle unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
What’s very strange is that Master of the Flying Guillotine isn’t really about the titular master. Oh, he shows up a few times and decapitates people with his iconic weapon (and is supposedly based on a real-life contraption), but most of his screen time is saved for the finale duel. Lung gets dragged into some brawls with a Muay Thai master and the Dhalsim-alike, but mostly runs from Wu Chi until he can devise a better strategy to deal with him.
It’s this ridiculously frenetic pacing that stops the movie from being a bore. I can’t say that it couldn’t be improved with more characterization, but when the main reason you’re watching a Kung Fu film is to witness the physical prowess of its stars, Master of the Flying Guillotine provides that in spades. With a runtime of just over 90 minutes, it might honestly have the largest number of fights per length of any film from this era.
There’s also the sheer creativity of the battles on display. They start off somewhat tame before the final act has Lung battling in a burning house with a metal floor to thwart the Muay Thai master followed by dueling with Wu Chi in a combination pet store/coffin shop that has all kinds of tricks and traps are strewn about. Throw in an ample amount of violence and you’ve got all of the ingredients for a stone-cold classic.
There is likely more I could talk about (like an early appearance from Lau Kar-Wing or the insanely awesome soundtrack that was stolen from various German artists), but seeing is believing with this one. My biggest fear when revisiting a lot of these films is that my childhood memories will betray reality. Nostalgia can be a powerful drug and it often deceives us into thinking the past was “better.” Sometimes, however, those memories are so bright and wonderful for a reason.
Master of the Flying Guillotine may not be the greatest Kung Fu film of all time, but it’s still an absolute blast and a must-see for any aspiring aficionado of the genre.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.