Master of the Flying Guillotine

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for whatever elegance and classiness it has, is an homage to the kind of movie represented by Master of the Flying Guillotine–that is to say, kung fu pulp. And while Crouching Tiger is the superior movie in every way – production value and design, acting, cinematography, action choreography – it owes a debt to the likes of Master of the Flying Guillotine. It is a debt repaid since this 1975 kung fu adventure would not likely now be restored and revived without the popularity of Crouching Tiger.

Master of the Flying Guillotine takes place in the time of the Ching Dynasty. The Chings have employed martial arts experts to roam the land, pursuing and killing the insurrectionist Hans. The greatest of these hunters is Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kang Kim). Adorned with eyebrows like snow-white caterpillars, he is master of the flying guillotine, a bladed device that is hurled over the head before decapitating the victim. (The weapon would reappear in Hong Kong’s popular 1992 fantasy actioner, The Heroic Trio). Despite Fung’s being a blind, old man, his martial arts skills are unmatched. When two of his disciples are killed while trying to take down the famed Han fighter, the One Armed Boxer, Fung swears vengeance.

The One Armed Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, who also directs the movie) runs a martial arts school where he teaches his students the “art of jumping” and how to walk on walls. He refuses to participate in a forthcoming martial arts tournament for he says martial arts are meant to attain spiritual fulfillment, not fame and fortune. He agrees to escort his enthusiastic students, but strictly to observe as a learning exercise. At this point the movie launches into a seemingly endless series of matches among colorful characters who would today be employed in the World Wrestling Federation. Each martial artist specializes in a technique familiar to any kung fu fan – eagle’s claw, crane style, snake fist, iron skin – as well as utilizing a variety of weapons. Several fighters are foreigners. Nai Men (Chi Fu Chiang) is from Thailand, “Win Without a Knife” Yakuma (Wang Lung Wei) is from Japan, and Yoga Master (Lau Ka Wing) is from India. The tournament matches from this movie clearly inspired later video fight games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter, and the character Dhalsim from the popular Street Fighter II games is clearly modeled on the Yoga Master.

Fung interrupts the tournament and attacks the One Armed Boxer who manages to escape. Fung enlists the Thai fighter, Nai Men, to help him hunt down the Boxer. Chi Fu Chiang plays Nai Men like he’s doing his best Charles Bronson impression. Despite the One Armed Boxer’s immense reputation in the land, his prowess seems not all that potent. Of course, fighting with only one arm is a bit of a hindrance. He is clearly no match for Fung, and so the Boxer hatches an elaborate plan leading to climatic showdowns with both Nai Men and Fung.

This is the kind of kung fu movie in which every motion of the human limb makes a sound like a jet plane passing by. It’s accompanied by a great 70s soundtrack that sounds like it was achieved by hammering a tin garbage can with growling animals trapped inside. The movie’s innate campiness is unavoidable, but it has such a well-meaning intent to entertain the viewer that one laughs with the movie, not at it. The fight sequences don’t match what Hong Kong’s best choreographers achieve today. The action lacks the intricate fireworks of Yuen Woo Ping (Once Upon a Time in China, The Matrix) or the balletic grace of Ching Siu-Tung (Swordsman II, Dragon Inn), but the movie makes up for it in the sheer creative variety the action takes. At one point, the movie utilizes a makeshift human frying pan that has to be seen to be believed, and it has combatants fight atop wooden posts while being endangered from below, long before the famed sequence in Iron Monkey. Master of the Flying Guillotine does not quite reach the delirious heights of its contemporary Five Deadly Venoms (how do you surpass a movie where one combatant fights with the toad style?), but it is one of the preeminent examples of 1970s kung fu pulp.

George Wu

New York ,
George Wu holds a masters degree in cinema studies from NYU. He eats, drinks, and sleeps movies. Fortunately, he lives in New York City, the best place in the country for disorders of this type. He also works on the occasional screenplay when inspiration strikes, but his muses don't slap him around enough.