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Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Flying Guillotine 2 (1978) review


Ti Lung (Ma Teng), Shi Szu (Na Lan), Ku Feng (Emperor Yung Cheng), Wang Chung (Bai Tai Kuan), Lo Lieh (Bao Ying), Frankie Wei Hung (Gang Jing Fung), Fan Mei Sheng (Li Sing Nan), Shih Chung Tien (Jin Feng Chi), Liu Lu Hua (Jiang Cheung Fung), Nancy Yen (Tien Sin), Chen Szu Chia (Yu Lan), Cheng Kang Yeh, Ku Kuan Chung

Directed by Cheng Kang & Hua Shan

The Short Version: This official sequel was plagued with serious production problems from disappearing, or disgruntled cast members and a change in director. The ruptured shooting schedule is painfully noticeable in places, but there's some genuinely well done sequences here including the ferocious finale inside the Emperor's fortress. One of the most downbeat of Shaw pictures, those seeking the action lacking in the original will likely enjoy the bloody ride here.

The last remnants of the Han Dynasty gather at Dan Hsia Mountain for a last stand against the tyranny of the cruel Emperor, Yung Cheng. Outlaw, Ma Teng, formerly one of the guillotine assassins, is sought by the heroes to join their cause. Among the fighters is Na Lan, the patriotic daughter of the Emperor's military secretary, Bao Lao. Swearing revenge for the death of her mother, Na Lan devises her own means of assassination to end Yung Cheng's despotic reign.

This hyper kinetic and thoroughly delirious sequel to the Shaw Brothers' big hit, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is the antithesis of the original. Where that picture was far more concerned with characterization and the terror wrought by the formidable head shaver, the sequel is far more concerned with heroic sword fights in a series of various assassination attempts and rescues. This Shaw production also differentiates itself from its predecessor by entrenching its framework within the Wuxia universe (swordplay films made popular again by Chu Yuan starting with KILLER CLANS in 1976); assorted weapons and slightly superhuman abilities abound. Good and bad guys alike leap through the air with the greatest of ease while sharp implements of varying shapes and sizes threaten to make shredded beef out of anyone caught in their path.

Just as Ho Meng Hua's trendsetting horror-action-thriller took nearly a year to complete, this sequel was equally problematic, even more so. Beginning production in January of 1976 under the tentative title of 'The Improved Guillotine', the film ran into numerous production wrecking obstacles before the finished picture was unveiled to modest success in February of 1978.

Production begins on FG 2. Note returning actors Chen Kuan Tai and Liu Wu Chi; Hong Kong Movie News February, 1976

Chen Kuan Tai was signed on to reprise his role as Ma Teng as was Liu Wu Chi who played his wife in the first movie. Ho Meng Hua was not returning as he was busy with other films as well as prepping the massive undertaking of THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977), a troublesome film in its own right. Critically lauded director, Cheng Kang (THE 14 AMAZONS) was assigned to take up the mantle as director of FLYING GUILLOTINE 2.

A spread of Liu Wu Chi, the actress that played Chen Kuan Tai's wife in the original FLYING GUILLOTINE. She mysteriously disappeared from the set of the second film and never returned to the HK film industry; Southern Screen May, 1975

A couple months into the filming (Cheng Kang was also finishing up KING GAMBLER at the time also with Chen Kuan Tai, who was also working on Liu Chia Liang's EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN), problems began. Actress, Liu Wu Chi inexplicably disappeared. Rumors floated around that she had left for Taiwan, or Brazil and some claimed she was still in Hong Kong, but she never returned to the film industry. At Cheng Kang's request, Hsiao Yao (THE LAST TEMPEST), a discovery of famed erotic and historical film director, Li Han Hsiang, was hired to replace Liu Wu Chi. The delay reportedly cost the Shaw's HK200,000. But the problems were just beginning for this seemingly cursed production.

Now same shot as above, but with Hsiao Yao playing the role of the wife; Southern Screen April, 1976

In October of 1976, Chen Kuan Tai, one of the Shaw's biggest moneymakers, abruptly left the studio, breaking his contract citing monetary differences. Leaving for presumably greener pastures on the independent circuit (he finally made his directorial dreams come true during this time), the headstrong actor was plagued with financial and female problems in the near two year interim he was gone from the Hong Kong movie scene. So now, FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 was missing its main star. To add insult to injury, Hsiao Yao, who replaced originally cast Liu Wu Chi, followed in her footsteps leaving both the film, and the Asian film industry entirely. The Shaw's had abandoned numerous productions before, but they were determined to mine a sequel out of the hit original, even if the quagmire was far from solved.

Now missing both its main star and actress, Ti Lung stepped into the shoes vacated by Chen Kuan Tai and sad eyed Chen Szu Chia (GHOST EYES) took over the role of Ma Teng's wife. But the storm wasn't over yet. With all the delays and change of cast (and no doubt a good deal of frustration), the meticulous Cheng Kang was unable to finish the picture, moving on to other projects. Hua Shan, a director with a propensity for gritty and violent crime thrillers and dark swordplay adventures, was brought on to finish the film and reshoot portions of it. All the footage with Chen Kuan Tai had to be discarded now and it's likely the script was altered as there were three writers here--I Kuang, initial director, Cheng Kang and Li Yung Chang (he also wrote and assisted direction on films for both of FG 2's directors).

FG 2 poster: Southern Screen October, 1977

Deciphering Cheng's footage from Hua's isn't too terribly difficult, but not necessarily easy, either. No doubt a lot of the scenes with Shi Szu and the heroes was Cheng's work. Those scenes possess a bit of the panache Cheng Kang was known for. The action scenes, though, have Hua Shan's stamp all over them what with the undercranked fights and quick cuts. Still, much of the chaotic editing appears to be the result of the numerous disruptions the film suffered during its two year gestation. Scenes occasionally begin and end hastily either being noticeably cut short, or appear to be chunks of a larger sequence. The film also has an episodic structure--a quarter of the film sets up the menagerie of characters and another is a series of assassination attempts and rescues.

After that, the film turns into a slightly light-hearted (very moderate) "battle of the FG sexes" between Shi Szu with her all girl guillotine squad against Lo Lieh and Wei Hung. Even with all the discrepancies and flaws, FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 manages to be an energetically bloody good time.

Behind the scenes of FLYING GUILLOTINE 2: Southern Screen May, 1976

There are definitely some impressive moments here--the intro to the Han heroes, Shi Szu being forced to kill her father to prove her loyalty to the Emperor (possibly the best scene in the picture) and the gory finale inside Yung Cheng's fortress. With the multitude of characters (there's far too many), no one particularly stands out. Had Cheng Kang, a strong writer, himself, been able to finish the film uninterrupted, this no doubt would have been rectified. As it stands, you do get a certain punch to the gut when certain characters are gruesomely killed off. Sadly, the Ma Teng character, the major holdover from the original, gets nowhere near the screen time of the first movie. Ti Lung seems to be winging it here as if he's taking this part while on vacation, or something. He does fine with what little he's given, though, and gets into the spirit of things when brandishing the improved steel umbrella.

The guillotine itself has been modified and the effects utilizing it are shown from a different perspective. Now, the killers carrying the cranium cleavers can twirl them over their heads like a lethal lasso. As opposed to the first picture, the creation of the weapon is accredited to a Tibetan lama named Kou Pin. Yong Cheng commissions him to create a new version of the guillotine to counter Ma's new and improved steel repellent. The improvement to the frisbee of death is pure comic book preposterousness. The guillotine also hides another secret which pops up at the end. This new addition prompts our heroes to steal the weapons blueprints so that Ma Teng can likewise upgrade his own weapon enhancing it with an added trick. One thing that can indisputably be said about Shaw Brothers action movies is that they came up with the most elaborately impressive caches of cutlery the film world has ever seen.

Emperor Yung Cheng (Ku Feng--left) is shown the new and improved double guillotine, a weapon with an additional hidden feature.

Award winning actor, Ku Feng returns from the first movie, but takes over for Chiang Yang as the evil, and real life Emperor Yung Cheng (or Yong Zheng). Described as evil under varying degrees from different interpretations, the Emperor's death (some sources state he was assassinated by a female avenger) has been a source of mystery as much as the legendary flying guillotine, itself. Ku Feng absorbs all the malice and black-hearted cruelty he could muster for his portrayal as the infamous historical figure. He suffers from a 'Nicholsonism' at one point, but manages to create one of the more sadistic enactments of an evil oppressor in a Chinese film. At the beginning, a naked woman is brought to his chamber and he promptly slashes her throat because she's a Han Chinese!

Cheng Kang Yeh (right) aims for the Emperor, but the evil man evades death by using a concubine as a human shield

Ku Feng also partakes in the action during the bloody end fight that takes up the last ten minutes. It's an exciting sequence as the few remaining heroes take on the Emperor, his guillotine goons and a cadre of spade wielding lama's. The sequence is nicely captured on film and integrated with good use of slow motion. Up to this point, the film has assaulted the viewer with a mixture of 'zoom in's' and 'zoom outs' and frequent use of tracking shots. Scenes are allowed to "breathe" only occasionally, no doubt a result of the aforementioned production problems.

Akira Ifukube's music from the equally downbeat and somber MAJIN (1966) fits this film like a glove reiterating the 'doom & gloom' atmosphere. FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 is the BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES of Shaw Brothers movies. If you've seen that film, you know what I mean. The mood is thoroughly ruthless and extends to the final moments with Ifukube's music reinforcing the nihilism. Some may be taken with the fast paced aura of FG 2 as it would become 'de rigueur' by the mid 1980s through the mid 90s. Others may be intermittently confounded by its erratic nature. Nonetheless, like a sugary caramel filled quick fix, FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 satisfies.

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


J.L. Carrozza said...

Always been a fan of this movie, I personally find it much richer than its predecessor, though MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is possibly my favorite kung fu films of the 70s. There something just more piss and vinegary about FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 and I watch Hong Kong films to savor their over the top ness, so this one is quite satisfying to me.

It definitely is a little disjointed, but really no more so than many of Shaw's productions, they're pure entertainment mostly. The whole rebels overthrowing evil emperor thing is very Star Warsy. You half expect the Han rebels to start talking about the Death Star's crucial design flaws when they're standing around planning the Emperor's assassination.

The Film Connoisseur said...

Im always amazed at how the Shaw Bros. started and dropped productions at the tip of the hat, some films left completely unfinished.

Yet so many good ones managed to be made! This is yet another one I need to write down on my list.

venoms5 said...

@ J.L.: I think we were talking about this one once before. I do like it, I just wish we could have seen what Cheng Kang would have done with the material. I also wish we could have seen the footage shot that was scrapped if it even still exists.

@ Fran: Yeah, it's amazing for a studio to have everybody working on 3 or 4 movies at once--a few hours on one set, then move on over to another for a totally different movie. The amount of movies they released in a single year was staggering, too. I got another Shaw guillotine movie ready to go, too, Fran. I doubt I'll have time to post it today, though.

Skeme Richards said...

Not one of my favorite shaw films but when I go into a marathon its usually in the mix.


venoms5 said...

I appreciate it more knowing that it had such a hard time getting made. I would love to have seen what Cheng Kang would have done with it had he been able to shoot it from start to finish and had Chen Kuan Tai stuck around.

Fazeo said...

I love this sub genre of kung fu films, spot on review. Never knew about Liu Wu Chi abruptly leaving the set like that, fascinating stuff.

venoms5 said...

I'm shocked this movie even got made at all what with the way the Shaws scuppered a number of other movies that seemingly had less trouble than this one. I got some additional info on this one, some of it in English, but a lot of it in Chinese; mostly actor interviews.

I wish I still had my english dubbed tape of FG 2. There's a shot in there that isn't in the DVD when the young Qing guard becomes a human test for the new guillotine's effectiveness. It's a quick couple seconds slow motion shot of his head spitting blood as the contraption latches around his head. I remember the tape, or print was damaged during this shot so I'm wondering if it was removed for that, or never in the HK cut to begin with.

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