Before the Hong Kong movie explosion of the 1990s -- heck, even before Bruce Lee broke through with The Big Boss (1971) in Hong Kong and Enter the Dragon (1973) in the United States and everywhere else -- there was Jimmy Wang Yu, a prolific and hugely popular martial arts star, whose films have now faded from the memory of all but obsessive kung fu movie buffs. Now we get a rare chance to see one of Wang's most enduring productions, Master of the Flying Guillotine (1974), which is being shown with subtitles (rather than dubbed) form for the first time ever in the United States.
Wang was in a number of swordplay films before he established his most popular character in One-Armed Swordsman (1967), directed by Chang Cheh, the 1960s master with whom John Woo got his start. After quarreling with the Shaw Brothers Studio, by far the biggest force in Hong Kong cinema at the time, he took his character -- sometimes a boxer, sometimes a swordsman, but always one-armed -- to smaller independent studios. After the Shaws went on to make their own "one-armed" films, as well as promote a new actor as "Young Wang Yu" in a film called Flying Guillotine, it appears that Wang got his revenge by stealing the latter's titular weapon for Master of the Flying Guillotine, which he wrote and directed as well as played the starring role.
The plot, such as it is, combines standard elements from the iconography of that decade's kung fu movies: the One-Armed Boxer (Wang) is a rebel against the oppressive Ching dynasty. Among the Ching hit men is Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kang Kam), a blind monk who is, despite his handicap, the Master of the Flying Guillotine -- the latter being basically a nifty hybrid of a lampshade, a boomerang, and a Vegematic. First you fling it like a Frisbee so it lands on your victim's head, then you yank the attached chain, closing an iris of razor-sharp blades around and through his neck. Jerk the chain back, cleanly removing the head, watch decapitated body fall, reopen iris and dispose of head. Rinse and repeat as necessary until all enemies are dead (and headless).
The One-Armed Boxer has killed (in self-defense, natch) two of Fung's students. When a nearby school declares a martial arts tournament, Fung -- out for revenge -- knows that he will find the one-armed wonder there. While the blind monk has developed his senses of smell and hearing to compensate for his blindness, they're not a perfect surrogate. As a result, he mistakenly kills a number of innocent one-armed bystanders before he finds the real McCoy.
The entire middle third of the film is a long, inventive tournament sequence, with nine or ten matches between a variety of novelty fighters -- most notably an Indian yoga master who can make his arms stretch to three times their normal length. But then Blind Monk Fung shows up and ruins the party, not knowing that the One-Armed Boxer has already left.
In the eventual, inevitable confrontation, our hero uses tricks that you'd never see in a Jackie Chan or Jet Li film. Knowing that he's no match for either Fung or Fung's Thai crony (Chi Fu Chiang), he uses his wits instead, setting booby traps to neutralize their strong points and exploit their weaknesses. It's refreshing and unusual to see clever strategy trumping ritual honor in a film of this genre, even if one of the tricks seems gratuitously brutal.
Master of the Flying Guillotine actually had some success when it was released in dubbed, cut form in the United States in 1977. The same version, in an extremely ragged print, later played art houses here in 1995, during the then-thriving Hong Kong film boom. A new print has been struck for the current release, and, while not perfect, it's light-years better than the old one.
Most important, though, is the restoration of the original Mandarin dialogue and the addition of new English subtitles. There is no way to overstate the damage done to Hong Kong cinema by the horribly dubbed "chop-socky" films that were Americans' only taste of Chinese film for decades. Whatever the films' legitimate faults, they didn't deserve the campy disdain that the bad dubbing invited.
No matter how primitive the film's technique might seem compared with the Hong Kong cinema that emerged a decade later from Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, John Woo, and others, you can see the roots of those filmmakers' work in the swift-paced, determinedly crowd-pleasing fight sequences that dominate the movie.
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