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Friday, February 11, 2011

The Flying Guillotine (1974) review


Chen Kuan Tai (Ma Teng), Ku Feng (Xin Kang), Frankie Wei Hung (Xu Shuang Kun), Liu Wu Chi (Ma Yu Ping), Chiang Yang (Emperor Yung Cheng), Wong Yu (Xie Tian Fu), Lin Wei Tu (Luo Peng), Ai Ti (Wan Zhu)

Directed by Ho Meng Hua

The Short Version: This Shaw Brothers classic about the creation and usage of a flying piece of killer cutlery is a favorite of 42nd street sleaze lovers. Aside from its exploitation elements, Ho Meng Hua's tale of righteousness, treachery and revenge is also one of his best directed movies and a shining, if gruesome example of Hong Kong cinema's golden age at its finest.

In an effort to maintain control over the populace and eradicate those who oppose him, Emperor Yung Cheng orders the recruitment of a secret order of assassins proficient in the use of a new terrifying weapon that can take off a man's head at a hundred yards. The most bright member of the group, Ma Teng, discovers treachery and greed among their ranks and escapes the stronghold before he, too, is targeted for assassination. On the run, Ma attempts to start a new life, but the order of secret killers are close behind.

Southern Screen July 1974

Revered Shaw Brothers director, Ho Meng Hua, spent a year working on this production before it finally saw release in the early months of 1975. All his arduous work and that of scriptwriter, I Kuang and others paid off handsomely. By taking actual historical figures, a legendary death device and weaving them around well developed characters, Ho and company created one of the most endearingly brutal HK action dramas ever made. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE went on to be a huge success around the world as well as spawning numerous imitations. Considered an "exploitation kung fu classic" in America, the film brazenly eschews kung fu movie conventions in favor of a more story oriented production. There are a few fight scenes, but these are not the typical style of HK screen fighting of the time period. The casual staging of the scant few fights appears to be intentional to maintain focus on the weapon itself and subsequent dramatic elements.

Director Ho is very successful in creating an atmosphere of dread brought out of the frightful nature of the flying guillotine--it can get you anywhere and nothing can stop it. Fiercely original, the weapon itself is an impressive design and thanks to the high skill level of the Shaw Brothers' props department, this imposing weapon looks like it could actually work. According to the director, the weapon did in fact exist. Apparently, something about the flying head snatcher must have been written about over the years--an Asian friend of mine said the weapon did in fact exist, but as Ho Meng Hua has pointed out, no one lived long enough to sketch what it looked like, nor have any drawings of the weapon been found. Until then, the flying guillotine will remain an enigma made larger than life by the imaginations of those interested in the subject.

Imagination was definitely a driving force in the number of movies similar to FG that were ejected onto movie screens in the wake of Ho's successful action-horror-drama. One of the first and most well known is Jimmy Wang Yu's impoverished, but heavy on outrageousness, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976); also known as THE ONE ARMED BOXER 2 and ONE ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. Not to be outdone, the Shaw Brothers started work in February of 1976 on their own sequel, FLYING GUILLOTINE 2. The Shaw's even ripped themselves off that year with DRAGON MISSILE, a 'B' actioner that featured a different type of guillotine weapon and some interesting effects for its usage. Another independent entry was THE FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINES from 1977 and starred Carter Wong, Chen Sing and Meng Hoi.

The Shaw's again showcased the flying noggin chopper during the first half of THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978), one of their best 'B' action exploitation movies. The appearance of the weapon and the guillotine squad seems to take place during the same time frame of the original Shaw Brothers movie. Ho Meng Hua directs this tale of a vengeful and pregnant Chen Ping going after her husbands killers, a member of the Emperor's secret kill squad who was marked for death by his colleagues. A modified version of the weapon also appeared in Indonesian movies such as the wild and wacky Barry Prima mystical martial arts gore epic THE DEVIL'S SWORD in 1982.

THE HEROIC TRIO (1993) also had a FG weapon, designed faithfully on the Shaw Brothers version and was thrown by Anthony Wong no less. Another modification of the classic death device cropped up in the gore drenched Japanese movie, THE MACHINE GIRL (2008). Some would also credit the weapon that Chiaki Kuriyama wields in KILL BILL (2003) as a variation on the famed piece of killer cutlery.

Ku Feng (left) holds a decapitated head while Wei Hung (right) retrieves another; insert: one of the negatives of film restoration is that minor details become far more noticeable such as this manniquin head that is now visible through the mesh of the guillotine.

Translated as 'The Blood Dripper', there's plenty of the red stuff on display and what is probably a world record of decapitations on screen. Some 25 victims lose their heads before the film ends. The flying frisbee of death also contains another method of dispatch--this steel helmet is aligned with saw blades. It's used to stab one poor soul in the face, and the guillotine ends up impaling one of the men who wields the weapon (future BASTARD SWORDSMAN Tsui Siu Keung, in fact) after it pulls a spear head from an ingenious device Ma creates to combat the guillotine (more on that later). While the picture is bloody, the film doesn't wallow in gory excess. The emphasis is on both the FG device and the characters, particularly Ma Teng; ably played by fan favorite, Chen Kuan Tai. Produced at the midpoint of Ho's career, it's the bridge between his earlier, classy productions and his later more exploitation driven works. It's the last truly great movie Ho Meng Hua directed. From here on out, his resume was dominated by far less serious and sundry offerings such as trash favorites BLACK MAGIC (1975), THE OILY MANIAC (1976), THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) and SHAOLIN HANDLOCK (1978).

Chen Kuan Tai (left) and Run Run Shaw (right) leaving an awards ceremony

Chen Kuan Tai does a great deal with his characterization of Ma Teng, a loyal follower to his country and Emperor who questions the motives of his superiors and even some of his compatriots when it becomes glaringly obvious that innocents are being slaughtered, and not rebels. The polar opposite to Chen's stoic turns as both Ma Yung Chen (THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG) and Hung Hsi Kwan (HEROES TWO), Ma Teng is about as human a character as Chen has ever played. He displays fear, hesitates before killing those in pursuit of him and generally just wants to be left alone and forgotten about. Frankie Wei Hung delivers one of those slimy roles he was so good at essaying in his portrayal of the greedy and deceitful Xu Shuang Kun. Wei was never a huge star, but carved an indelible image in exploitation movies when a certain role was required in numerous Shaw sex and sadism movies.

Frankie Wei Hung in the type of roles he was born to play

Ku Feng smells a rat

The celebrated and award winning actor, Ku Feng plays the ill fated creator of the flying guillotine, Xin Kang. A man unquestionably loyal to the Emperor, but not above suspicion. His part in this picture ends in an ironic bit of guilefulness on the part of one of the very men he trained. The scenes where he is engulfed in thought in designing the weapon and how it will work gives levity to the weapon once we see it. It isn't like he has an epiphany then in the next scene, the creation is revealed. The unveiling of the guillotine involves one of the most oft remembered shots from the film; some who have seen the film at some point in their life seem to always recall when the dog is decapitated in a gruesome display of the weapons capabilities. A real dog doesn't have his head severed, but the scene is still effective.

Wong Yu (left); insert: Ai Ti in a state of undress

Later to become a minor kung fu star in his own right is a young Wong Yu, who, in 1975 would star in Liu Chia Liang's directorial debut hit, THE SPIRITUAL BOXER. He has a minor supporting role in FG as a much too green member of the guillotine squad who finds he doesn't want to kill in the name of the Emperor and ultimately becomes a target, himself. Ai Ti, a major Shaw sex starlet during the 70s and early 80s also has a minor supporting role as one of the Emperor's concubines given to Wong Yu's character as a present.

Ho Meng Hua's THE FLYING GUILLOTINE remains a classic in Hong Kong cinema and a favorite among fans. Part of its appeal lies in its non-conformance to genre conventions. It transcends the classical essence of the kung fu genre through its righteous and despicable characters without the use of fists and feet--the training and use of the lethal yo yo-like implement is a substitute for any number of animal styles that dominate the traditional kung fu flick. As with most movies where a counter style is learned to repel another, so another steel device is created to combat the dreaded guillotine. Ma Teng devises a steel umbrella, a rudimentary, but intimidating weapon in its own right. It works well for a brief time before it's surmised that only a flying guillotine can stop another flying guillotine. This occurs during the third act--the first being the build-up of the group and their motivations, the second act is the chase and pursuit of Ma and the third is Ma Teng, with no other option, finally fighting back against his former brothers.

One of the most original films of its kind and one of the most accomplished, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is a grand achievement of the director and one of the most well known productions that exploded from the famed Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong. It has had a lasting impression on numerous filmmakers, both in Asia and abroad and its influence is undeniable. Those expecting lots of action will instead find many heads being torn asunder amidst an oppressively grim atmosphere, but Ho's movie has much more going for it than that. Fans of Chen Kuan Tai will see the diversity of this actor in a role devoid of the near invincibility of his larger than life Chang Cheh portrayals. Hold onto your heads, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is a highly recommended movie.

This review is representative of the IVL R3 DVD from Hong Kong (OOP).


Samuel Wilson said...

This I've missed, but I've seen Master, a classic of its outrageous kind, and the even more outrageous double ripoff, Zatoichi vs. Flying Guillotine, starring a Shintaro Katsu lookalike. With those in my past, I defnitely owe the original a look.

shaolin_drunkard said...

Great as always.

Andrew said...

Great review....
You've convinced me to pick this one up.

R.A.M.'67 said...

Great review, venoms5! With Shaw Blu-ray reissues starting to trickle out from HK and Taiwan, maybe TFG will get back into print in an upgraded form!

A guy on KFC said he got the new BD for The Love Eterne (Region A, good for US players), and it was a vast improvement over the DVD! (It's believed it was newly remastered from a better source.) He added the Eng subs were newly re-translated and grammaticly right, too! One-Armed Swordsman is a up-coming release, so it seems select titles might get BD reissues. Let's hope TFG is among them! :o)

Franco Macabro said...

Damn it, I need to see this one!

I am a huge fan of Master of the Flying Guillotine, to me its almost a horror film with that spooky soundtrack appearing every time the Master of the Flying Guillotine appears...its such an awesome film.

But it looks like this one you just reviewed is even better? 25 people decapitated? A scene where they actually show how the contraption was designed? I mean this all sounds golden to me!

You had suggested this one on my Master of FLying Guillotine review, I remember. I need to see all these as soon as possible, do you know if they are available on the "Dragon Dynasty" label? I'd love to get my hands on this one as soon as possible.

Also, thanks for answering my question on the Guillotines existence, I was always curious about it being real or not. I guess its still shrouded in mystery if we never really know how the thing looked in real life. But at least we know a weapon called the flying guillotine did exist.

Great review man, your encyclopedic knowledge on these films is always impressive.

venoms5 said...

@ Sam: Before you mentioned it, I had never heard of ZATOICHI VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. I have all the Japanese films so I was curious just what in the hell that was. I will read your review in full when I get off work, Sam. The original FG is a totally different animal from the others, mind you.

@ Shaolin Drunkard: Thanks for stopping by and I'll be checking out your site this afternoon!

@ Andrew: It's a good film, very different from the typical HK style actioner. It used to get a lot of airplay on 'The Black Belt Feature'.

@ Fang: Yeah, a FG blu ray would def be awesome! I read through most of your DELINQUENT review, Fang. Will finish it up this afternoon. Great work, my friend!

@ Fran: This one's more of a thriller with a little bit of fighting. Part 2 is strictly an action flick. I'll be getting that one posted sometime this evening. Dragon Dynasty does own the North American rights to both of the official Shaw Brothers FG movies. They should be coming out at some point since they've gotten quicker about getting those movies out lately. I think you'd like this, Fran. It's got political undertones, too. A remake has been announced as well.

RaroVHS said...

Hi there! I have you in my blogroll. Would you like to add a link to my site too? thanks!

venoms5 said...

Hi, Raro, I thought I already had you in there! I just added you thanks!

Skeme Richards said...

I've always loved this film from seeing it in the theaters to watching on TV but after reading your review it sparked me to throw it in tonight and watch it!


venoms5 said...

I love this one, Skeme. It never gets old. I'd recommend this one to people that don't like martial arts films just based on its story alone. Hopefully Dragon Dynasty releases both the two official FG films in the US soon.

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