Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975)
The 'Master' and the Furious
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
I had the fleeting impression after walking out of this amazing 1975 Hong Kong classic, that I'd heard something about it before, perhaps long buried in my childhood. Whispered legends, perhaps, passed during our youthful games of a man with a flying red hat that could cut your head off with a flick of the wrist.
Nonetheless, Master of the Flying Guillotine is a reality. It's opening today at the Lumiere in what's called the "Ultimate Edition," complete with English subtitles -- though the print is still in pretty bad shape. It looks as if it's spent the last 25 years in a dishwasher.
No matter. After the first five minutes, you won't mind the print quality. You'll feel blessed that you've had an opportunity to see this unbelievable film.
Jimmy Wang Yu wrote, directed and stars as the hero of the film, the One Armed Boxer. But he has the gumption to start the film by showing the villain -- the blind Buddhist and Master of the Flying Guillotine (Kam Kong).
We learn through narration that the One Armed Boxer has killed the Master of the Flying Guillotine's two disciples. So the Master practices with his red hat on a couple of stone statues and a chicken, burns down his house, and hits the road. He vows not only to kill the One Armed Boxer, but any one armed man who crosses his path (there's more walking around out there than you'd think).
Meanwhile, a kung fu tournament is unfolding, which basically gives Wang Yu an excuse to stage fight after fight without any plot getting in the way. Some of the fighters seem to have supernatural powers, such as a man who can extend his arms to a length of about eight feet. Other fighters use different styles -- such as Monkey style -- or various weapons to defeat one another.
During the tournament, we're introduced to a few secondary characters who will go on to either help or hinder the One Armed Boxer in his fight with the Master of the Flying Guillotine, but it all comes down to the big one-on-one.
In addition, we have a movie with a blind main character and the movie does not once make a bid for our sympathies, nor does it pat itself on the back for its humanity and nobility. In fact, this blind guy is the baddest Leroy Brown in town!
Master of the Flying Guillotine is a film that depends more on its imagination than on its special effects, and more on wide, clear action scenes instead of the choppy, shaky brand -- making it entirely unique in this summer's crop of entertainments.
In filming the tournament, Wang Yu mostly follows the Fred Astaire rule: show the head and feet in the same shot and hold the shot for as long as possible without cutting. This way we can see the poetry of the fight and we know that the fighters are actually fighting. Most American action directors continue to blatantly ignore these rules, and "Master of the Flying Guillotine" not only shows them up, but also proves how behind the times they are.
In any case, everything escalates to that final fight, which takes place in a coffin shop and involves a plethora of clever death traps as well as some obvious but effective special effects (the Master of the Flying Guillotine can turn his head around 360 degrees like Linda Blair in The Exorcist) and some explosive kung-fu.
The sound effects alone make this film a must-see; when a fighter connects with his target the screen rings out with "biff," "pow" and "bam" noises that will make you feel 10 years old again. If you don't walk out of the theater kung fu-ing your pals and making slamming, oof-ing sounds with your mouth, you should immediately demand your money back.