Sunday, June 14, 2020

The Flying Guillotines: History of the Shaw Brothers Trendsetter, Its Sequel and Imitators Part 2

"I've been told that filming FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 is not a wise move  for my career because Ho Meng Hua's original is too good to beat. But I am willing to try it as I like accepting challenges so I will dare to shoot a sequel."--Cheng Kang, HKMN February 1976.

This concluding article on the Flying Guillotine movies and the films inspired by them picks up where Part 1 left off--covering the making of Shaw Brothers official sequel, THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978), and the astounding amount of trouble they had bringing it to the screen; the problems with Chen Kuan Tai who quit both the film and the studio in late 1976; Guillotine clones from independent studios; and Shaw's final attempt at the material in THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978) and other things in between.


In hindsight, Cheng Kang (the father to famed action choreographer and director Ching Siu Tung) probably wishes he never dared attempt to sequelize Ho's classic original. Considering the sheer amount of chaos surrounding the production, it's a wonder the picture ever got made at all. In the past, Shaw Brothers had numerous productions that swapped out actors or directors for a variety of reasons. CALL TO ARMS (1973), for example, started over from scratch after it lost its lead actor, Chang Yi. THE DEVIL'S MIRROR (1972) went through six actresses before starting over from scratch with a new cast and director. FG2, on the other hand, was scrapped and started over again an unprecedented three different times. With Wang Yu keeping his personal beef with Run Run Shaw alive (even to this day) in a continuing series of cheaply made clones featuring one-armed men, gangsters, and Guillotines, the movie mogul producing a legitimate sequel to one of his studio's biggest hits ensured they would be as hellbent on completing it as they were to sue him for breach of contract.

After finishing his segment of the innovative anthology movie THE CRIMINALS (1976), Cheng Kang was eager to shoot a full-length feature again. An award winning filmmaker, Cheng Kang lived and breathed cinema. He was one of Hong Kong's most highly respected, and revered film directors as one of the most high-spirited to ever work in the industry. Some of his finest achievements include TWELVE GOLD MEDALLIONS (1970), THE 14 AMAZONS (1972), and KIDNAP (1974). He was notorious for taking an astonishingly long time to make a movie; but the box office results were almost always worth the wait. While shooting the 'Hidden Torsos' segment of THE CRIMINALS (1976), for example, reporters took advantage of the situation and made a bet with him on the first day of filming that he couldn't complete his portion within two weeks. Eager to prove them wrong, Cheng Kang took them up on the bet and, working literally day and night, the determined filmmaker brought his segment in on schedule.

Cheng's nickname was "The Slow Director". At the time, and for purposes of comparison, director Cheng was nearing completion of his epic crime opus, KING GAMBLER (1976); after taking three years to finish it--from conception to completion (the picture wouldn't be released till November of 1976). This drive for efficiency built on a bet may have been instrumental in Cheng Kang's decision in tackling a movie that seemed like a better fit for any other director but him (above pic: Lo Lieh and Shih Szu pose together on the FG2 set while Cheng is still director).

A perfectionist, Cheng (at right filming FG2) seldom used other people's scripts that he didn't write himself. On this occasion, he opted to film whatever the company gave to him; so Ni Kuang sent over what would eventually become FLYING GUILLOTINE 2. Despite his assertion to direct whatever assignment the studio handed over, director Cheng didn't like the script, stating it was too derivative of Ho's movie; so he revised it to his specifications. For one example, the 'Fools Loyalty' of the original was repeated once again; but this time it's Shih Szu's character who, like Chen Kuan Tai's before her, comes to question the Emperor's orders. Among Cheng's other alterations, he placed more emphasis on Ku Feng's now Kung Fu fighting Emperor (unlike the non-fighting emperor played by Chiang Yang in the earlier movie) and changed Shih Szu's motivations to one of revenge.

He'd also intended to change the title from FG2 to something like 'Assassination of Yung Cheng'; stating the weapons were secondary to him, that it was the human performances he cared most about. Director Cheng likewise enhanced the number of assassination attempts on the Emperor from the originally scripted single attempt to three; even writing Shih Szu's character as a cinematic version of Liu Siniang of the legend--the vengeful daughter who plotted the Emperor's death for murdering her family. In the end, the Chinese title didn't mention the infamous decapitator, translating to 'Qing Dynasty Assassination'; but the English title of FLYING GUILLOTINE PART II was there to clue Anglo audiences in.

When asked about his resistance to keeping the Guillotine weapon in the title Cheng replied, "There's going to be a subtitle in the name, but the main plot of our film is killing Emperor Yung Cheng. The Guillotine is just a weapon. This show will have one thrill after another. The audience is sure to like it, and this must be a purely commercialized movie. I've also changed the original script to include a group of heroes to kill Yung Cheng." As curious as it might've been to hear the director say he's making the star of the original a supporting player in its own movie, it was even more befuddling to hear Cheng Kang, for the first time in his career, proclaim he was making a commercial motion picture. His films were notable for their meticulous details and precise characterizations; so it was surprising to hear him state he was making a formula picture. Additionally, there was even more special effects with the weapon than the first movie. Japanese technicians were already working in the studio ready to devise the new effects of the Guillotine but Cheng--who likes to do everything himself--decided to do them (insert: Cheng Kang accepting his award for Best Director at the 11th Annual Golden Horse Awards in October 1973 for THE 14 AMAZONS).

Filming began on what was tentatively titled 'The Improved Guillotine' on December 9th, 1975. Chen Kuan Tai, already saddled with a busy slate of films, was assigned to return as Ma Teng; although his character was no longer the sole focus of the movie. His character was sharing the screen with Shih Szu (who has more screen time in the finished version) and several others portraying the Kiang Nan Swordsmen including familiar faces like Wang Chung and Fan Mei Sheng.

Liu Wu Chi, one of three female protagonists (including Shaw's reigning Sword Queen Shih Szu and contender to the throne Nancy Yen), was supposed to reprise her role as Ma's wife, Yu Lan. Liu was a classically trained actress that joined the Shaw organization in July of 1970 and, while cautious about scripts, didn't care if her role was a major or supporting one. However, the roles she was being given at this time were vastly different from what she'd done in years prior (insert pic: deleted Cheng Kang footage featuring Shih Chung Tin, Nancy Yen, Shih Szu, and Wang Chung that preceded an assassination attempt by Wang that results in one of their own [played by Ku Kuan Chung] being killed).

Ironically, while Cheng Kang would try to speed things up to shake off his frustrating nickname of "The Slow Director", everything that could go wrong, did; keeping him from making much progress on the only sequel his name was ever attached to. With one calamity after another, problems arose a few weeks after filming began, and only snowballed from there.

Mysteriously, lead actress Liu Wu Chi would disappear from the set roughly a month into filming in February of 1976. The crew waited a time for her to arrive on-set; and when she didn't, they decided to film other scenes that didn't require her presence, figuring she'd show up at some point; she never did. Rumors began to swirl that she'd headed back home to Taiwan, while others claimed she might be in Paris or Brazil; and others said she was hiding out somewhere in Hong Kong. During a break in filming on KING GAMBLER in October of 1975, Liu Wu Chi went to Taiwan for a vacation and remained in contact with director Cheng. For the actress to suddenly exit without notification and with no news of her whereabouts was alarming and extremely upsetting to Cheng Kang. She was his discovery, after all.

In an October 1974 Southern Screen interview, Liu Wu Chi gave some indication as to what may have been behind her disappearance from the film world a little over a year later. Her contract at that time was for five years and was up in 8 months, citing at the time about renewal, "It depends. If Shaw asks me, I believe I will accept. Of course, I hope to increase the compensation a little. My interest in acting is getting stronger." Lu did renew, but she also had other interests such as a clothing business that had closed down due to Hong Kong's skyrocketing rents. She wished to continue this business, but desired to reopen in Taipei at some point. 

Also, her last two roles at this time were quite different from those earlier in her career. The horror film SPIRIT OF THE RAPED (1976) was a lead for her, but the subject matter was unlike anything she'd done before. And her participation in HOMICIDES: CRIMINALS 2 (1976) was a gritty, if uniquely experimental anthology. So it's possible she didn't like the direction her career was going; abruptly leaving the film industry to start her clothing business again; viewing that as a better option.

As for FG2, weeks went by and still no word from Liu Wu Chi. The picture was half complete, so the options were to either scrap the picture or re-cast it. This is in March of 1976. Wang Yu's ONE-ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is due out the following month in April on the same day as Shaw's own FG clone DRAGON MISSILE. The price-tag of the average HK movie was $300,000. Shaw's losses were reported at $200,000. The picture was important enough to the company to start over; after all, it might appear as a loss of face to scrap it. Cheng Kang quickly found a replacement for Liu Wu Chi in Hsiao Yao (see insert), an actress from Li Han Hsiang's camp of prestigious productions. She had an opening in her schedule in between shooting Sun Chung's surprisingly trashy COBRA GIRL (1977). With no time to read the script, she agreed to take the role of Ma's wife, Yu Lan... for the time being.


"The life of an actor has always been limited. I have to pave the way for myself as I am eager to work behind the camera. I want to be a director, and I have been trying to learn as much as possible from other directors."--Chen Kuan Tai, Southern Screen, May 1976

Chen Kuan Tai became one of HK's most famous Kung Fu stars in the early 1970s. He initially attracted the attention of Cantonese filmmakers in 1969 after winning a light-weight division championship in Singapore's National Skills Competition. The Monkey Fist practitioner became so busy filming, he was unable to continue competitive fighting. In October of 1971, Chen was invited to be a judge at an MA competition in Taiwan but moviemaking didn't allow the time. In November of 1971, Chen signed with Shaw Brothers. As per the stipulations of the agreement, he wasn't allowed to make movies for other companies; although he was permitted to complete IMPETUOUS FIRE (1972), an action-drama directed by Johnny Lo Mar (MONKEY KUNG FU; BRUCE LEE AND I) for Huang Zhuo Han's First Films Company since he'd begun the film prior to signing at Shaw.

When asked in February of 1972 how he felt about working at Movietown, Chen said, "Shaw is a large organization. The production facilities and equipment are second to none in Southeast Asia. It provides many favorable conditions for filming. I hope to be able to shoot more good films for the studio." With one hit after another (including THE FLYING GUILLOTINE), and four years into his contract, Chen would become increasingly vocal about expanding his career as well as his pay--leading to a complicated situation that would mirror the predicament of another Shaw superstar who had abruptly left the studio in 1970.

In the first half of 1976, Chen Kuan Tai had either wrapped up filming, or was still working on various projects like CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS (1976), BIG BAD SIS (1976), and EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977). He was also finishing up the long-filming KING GAMBLER (1976), and barely begun the increasingly troubled THE FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978). The summer of '76 was also supposed to see him star in the second sequel in the TEAHOUSE series; initially reported to shoot entirely in the UK with director Kuei Chi Hung returning. In a May 1976 Southern Screen interview, Chen stated he wished to go beyond being primarily an actor. He was in his 30s and felt his life as a leading man was getting shorter.

He'd gotten experience as an Assistant Director under the guidance of Cheng Kang during the long production of KING GAMBLER (1976). In February of 1976, Chen Kuan Tai got his wish and was allowed to direct a feature for the first time outside Movietown in THE SIMPLE-MINDED FELLOW (1976); produced by Chen and popular comedy actor, James Yi Lei for their Tai Shen Company located in Taiwan. Yi Lei (who had been in the business since he was 14) stars in what was something of a comedy version of Chen's popular Big Brother Cheng movies; about a country bumpkin who leaves the farm to see the big city and gets into trouble. Chen had a producer credit on the company's first movie, the awful SNAKE FIST DYNAMO (1974). For this second feature, it was a partnership with both men producing, Yi Lei starring and Chen directing (insert: Yi at left; Chen at right). The film was a modest success upon its August 1976 release. Still, Chen felt he wasn't receiving what his star was worth and wanted to continue working behind the camera as well as in front of it (below photo: Chen and his AD Li Hao rehearse a comedic scene for THE SIMPLE-MINDED FELLOW).

In October of 1976, Chen Kuan Tai, after being lured by far more lucrative offers from Taiwanese film producers to make and or direct movies, committed a breach of contract, vacating Movietown; leaving both FG2 and TWO GENERATIONS OF MASTERS (later to bear the English title of  EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN) unfinished. The headstrong actor immediately left for Taiwan where he began directing and or starring in five motion pictures. Like Jimmy Wang Yu before him, Chen had lawsuits on his tail immediately after. The hoopla surrounding the case even drew comparisons to the Wang Yu suit by the media.

On October 21st of that year, Shaw won a temporary injunction against the actor, prohibiting him from making movies for any company other than Shaw Brothers, pending the hearing of the suit against him. Run Run Shaw then issued a letter to his lawyer that Chen refused to shoot the remainder of FLYING GUILLOTINE 2. Chen also refused to acknowledge the injunction and went to make movies anyway, resulting in another suit and another loss in court for Chen; as well as one movie, his second stab as director (and first time directing himself), IRON MONKEY (1977), being withheld from release in summer of 1977. After this loss, Chen met with Ma Fang Chang, the head of Shaw's branch in Taiwan, that he wanted to meet with Boss Shaw in the hopes of closing the case (insert pic: deleted Cheng Kang FG2 footage with Chen Kuan Tai).

Chen Kuan Tai told reporters that Shaw had always treated him well but he wanted more money and to fulfill his desire to direct more movies. Stating Shaw was being unreasonable to his demands, Chen found independent offers of HK$250,000 for a film too good to pass up versus the $40,000 per picture he was currently getting. He also stated he intended to win the suit against him and would fight it to the end. While these independent companies would dangle larger sums of money to attract actors, they didn't have the safety net of a major studio. Many of the indy companies produced one or two movies before going out of business--gambling high with a name actor in the hopes they produce a hit that will hopefully lead to more. In the end, it would seem Chen Kuan Tai's impulsiveness didn't pay off.

With just a little over a year remaining on it, his contract was for six years and 24 pictures. Chen stated that he'd already appeared in 29 movies; five over his contracted number. However, Shaw's countered that the additional performances were cameo appearances and didn't count as starring roles. Chen would go on to say if he were to complete TWO GENERATIONS OF MASTERS (insert: Liu Chia Liang directing Chen on the set of 2 GENERATIONS OF MASTERS), or if he received a new script, he would only agree after satisfactory negotiations; otherwise, he would refuse to shoot. Moreover, the suit as issued wasn't demanding monies for breach of contract, but that Chen Kuan Tai pay Shaw Organization HK$700,000 in subsidies.

Cinemart reported in December of 1976 that had Chen known earlier that Shaw had agreed to a $500,000 allowance, there never would have been a lawsuit. By this point, Chen had moved out of the dormitories to an undisclosed location with his live-in girlfriend, Ying Ying. 

Many other actors wanted to freelance and or try their hand at directing. Some of these were granted permission without issue for reasons known only to those individuals and the late Sir Run Run Shaw. One such actor was Lo Lieh (star of DRAGON MISSILE and co-star in FG2), and his situation was in contrast to Chen's.

"If I had as much money as Boss Shaw, I would never work again. I'd buy me an island, a private jet, and live like a king! It's not easy making money and the future is not long. I can shoot outside of Shaw on three different movies, make HK$30,000 a day, then quickly return to Movietown. I come back and find out Chen Kuan Tai quit the company and now has a lawsuit against him. If I had been here I'd not have let him do this."--Lo Lieh interview, HKMN, June 1977.

When Lo Lieh started at Shaw Studio in the early 1960s, he was making very little money. By 1978 he was a millionaire. He supplemented his meager income by gambling, occasionally losing more than he was winning. One of the hardest working actors in Asian cinema in those days, it wasn't unusual for him to literally work 24 hours a day; sometimes slinking down in a corner or a chair to catch a quick nap. When asked why he likes working so much Lo said, "I love making money! There are more movies to be made, and of course you can make more money making them. But you have to do good work. If you're sloppy then the director loses interest in you, and the producer loses confidence in you. It's like blocking your way to wealth."

Lo Lieh's aspirations included setting up his own production company. After filming the Shaw co-pro BLOOD MONEY (known here as THE STRANGER AND THE GUNFIGHTER), Lo had intended to produce a sequel to the film that brought him international attention. Unfortunately, 'Five Fingers of Death 2' never materialized through Lo's Film Company, nor any other company; but he did direct DEVIL AND ANGEL (1973) and a few South Korean co-productions; and later was given the opportunity to direct for Shaw in the classic CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1980). 

Lo Lieh's dutiful loyalty to the Shaw's was likely the reason he was allowed to freelance and direct without any obstruction when he asked to do so. Chen Kuan Tai, on the other hand, took a more confrontational route. However, unlike the Wang Yu scenario, and with all the trouble and stubborn behaviors, there was a happy ending to the CKT situation (above pic: Chen, Run Run Shaw, Lo Lieh in 1972 at Shaw Studios annual New Years party).

In 1976, a committee was formed made up of filmmakers, studios, and businessmen who would agree not to support actors that broke their contracts. Chen, though, was still able to find backing. He continued filming in Taiwan the entire time but exactly where was a mystery despite attempts by Shaw to find out. He also shot at least one movie in Indonesia during his costly two year temper tantrum. However, there were signs that things were beginning to take a slight turn for the better in early 1977.

Liu Chia Liang got the two men together sometime in January '77, meeting and discussing their predicament for two hours in Shaw's office. What was said wasn't revealed although Liu (insert pic at right with Chen Kuan Tai upon completion of CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS) told reporters the two men were jovial in their conversation. No settlement was decided upon, but Chen did return to finish Liu's movie, EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN in time for its Chinese New Year playdate; telling reporters at an early screening in February, "'Hung Hsi Kuan' is the last movie I have made for Shaw. I hope it is the best. I have high expectations for it."

Liu Chia Liang made a statement to the press that Chen would likely return to the studio in April 1977, citing the actor would star in a movie for him; but didn't say if this was to finish out his existing contract or to sign a new one. Chen's last Shaw picture was indeed a hit, making over $2.5 million in HK. Unfortunately, the actor didn't return a few months later in April.

That same month in February of 1977, a prohibition order was issued in Taiwan. After several months of filming in secret, Chen Kuan Tai was found to be in violation of the ban in May. Reportedly, his second directing effort, IRON MONKEY (1977), did briefly play theaters in Taiwan, but was pulled from release more than once. Chen made five films outside of Movietown and yet none could legitimately be screened anywhere till the matter with Shaw was settled.

"I left Shaw because I was overwhelmed and not taken seriously. I think I am worth a certain price, but the company can't satisfy me. I can't let it go. I don't think I am being unreasonable, and will fight for it."--Chen Kuan Tai, Cinemart interview, April 1978

Chen's contract dispute was one problem that never needed to have happened. Unfortunately, the steadfast actor was regularly in the news at this time for other things. He had been separated from his wife for three years and, with many admirers, had fallen in love a few times in the interim; the next object of his affection being former Shaw Brothers Training Center student, Ying Ying (see insert). When that soured after a six year relationship, Fang Chen I came along in April of '78. Complementing his romantic life, and changing his point of view on marrying again, it's possible Ms. Fang was instrumental in tempering the actor's stubbornness. Much like Wang Yu's characters he played in his movies, Chen Kuan Tai was a lot like those he played on-screen as well. Meantime, Chen was expending a lot of money on court hearings between a divorce and a film contract suit.

This also wasn't the first time Chen had vacated a film before its completion. At the beginning of his career, he'd already worked as a background actor in some two dozen movies--many of which were at Shaw Studio; one of them being a thug in Wang Yu's THE CHINESE BOXER (1970). His biggest role at that time was as the main villain in Ng See Yuen's independently made THE BLOODY FISTS (1972). Chang Cheh had already directed Chen as an extra in some of his films like VENGEANCE! (1970), and thought he'd be the perfect Ma Yung Chen, the lead character in THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972). Chen wasn't finished shooting Ng's independent picture, so he just quit the production and left for Shaw Brothers where he became a star overnight (pic at top: Chen and Ng See Yuen [wearing glasses]).

Finally, after a near two year court battle, in September of 1978, Chen Kuan Tai would settle things with the recently knighted Sir Run Run Shaw (You can read more about Shaw's legacy and Movietown in a two-part article HERE). He returned to Movietown, signing a new four year contract with two films per year. Upon his arrival, it was like "the wanton one" had never left. It was like seeing old friends again with everyone greeting him and cracking jokes as if no time had passed. Chen's first movie upon his long-awaited return was Chang Cheh's CRIPPLED AVENGERS (1978). He not only returned to the studio that cultivated his fame, but he returned to the director that made him famous. In later years, Chen would reflect Shaw's Old Hollywood sentiments in interviews regarding the difficulties of producing quality movies with temperamental film stars making demands. He remained with Shaw Brothers till they closed their doors in the mid-1980s, and worked behind the camera again, as well as making movies outside the company.


Cheng Kang continued shooting what he could on FG2 even though he was distracted by wanting to finish up KING GAMBLER (starring Chen Kuan Tai as the villain), a movie he'd toiled away on for three years at a cost in the range of HK$5-$6 million. So it was filming FG2 during the day and working on the dubbing for his gambling epic at night. He finally had the gambling movie ready by October of 1976, just in time for its November release (insert pic: deleted scene of Liu Fai and Fan Mei Sheng encountering the new FG).

Ironically, it was reported at the time that Cheng Kang was shooting FG2 with a quickness he was unaccustomed to. Sadly, he was now minus his main star and, not long after, Hsiao Yao. She showed great promise in Li Han Hsiang's big budget epics THE EMPRESS DOWAGER (1975) and THE LAST TEMPEST (1976). But for reasons unknown at the time, she exited the picture, and the industry, disappearing as Liu Wu Chi had done; although this wasn't the last time she made a public appearance, but more on that later (above pic: deleted scene from Cheng Kang's footage taking place after Liu Lu Hua's failed assassination attempt and leading into the scene where Wang Chung thinks he's about to kill the Emperor).

Unfortunately, director Cheng Kang (at right with Shih Szu) wouldn't see his first commercial project through to the end. His contract stipulated he must direct four movies a year. The last time he made that many was 1972. With all the trouble "The Slow Director" had attempting to complete FG2, he was unwilling to continue and left the project with 1/3 of the movie finished. Cheng left Shaw Studio to try his hand on the independent circuit with the modern thriller THE SCOUNDREL (1977), stating at the time in interviews for other publications that he hadn't left Movietown for good, but was awaiting a proper script; that turned out to be GAMBLER'S DELIGHT--a followup to his KING GAMBLER (1976) that would take even longer to make (it began filming in '77 but wasn't completed till 1981). Cheng had better luck with the modern prison drama, INVINCIBLE ENFORCER, a Shaw Brothers release for 1979.

In the past, Run Run Shaw had canceled movies with far less issues than FG2. It's the only time in their history that they filmed a movie three times to get it completed. FG2 would now have a new director, new lead actor and new actress attached. With the failure of DRAGON MISSILE (1976) to strike gold at the HK box office (it made less than half what Ho's original movie had made and Wang Yu's impoverished knock-off), there was high hopes that this official sequel would be the success its production failed to be. However, there were more Guillotine clones coming (insert: deleted shot from Hua Shan's footage of Ti Lung battling the Guillotine Squad that was supposed to introduce Ma Teng and the Kiang Nan fighters to the new Double Guillotine).

"This investment has been a costly one for the company and a picture that has really exhausted its cast members and staff."--Director Hua Shan, HKMN, May 1977

When Hua Shan (above in middle with Ti Lung at left and Lo Lieh at right) took over in January of 1977, he more or less followed the script as written. He was already working on other pictures like ARSON: CRIMINALS III (1977), TO KILL A JAGUAR (1977), and LAST STRIKE (1977), one of a few independent features he made for the Eternal Film Company. Moreover, his style was vastly different from Cheng Kang. His was a streamlined approach with a relentlessly kinetic energy whereas Cheng was more diligent in every aspect of the production. Had Cheng remained as sole director the film would likely have been closer to two hours like the original--instead of the ADD-infused pace of Hua's infinitely entertaining 90 minute mess.

Since they were starting over with new cast and crew, the film's new tentative English title was now 'Palace Carnage'. Li Yung Chang, who had been an AD and writer for Hua's earlier movies (THE SUPER INFRAMAN, THE CRIMINALS, and BROTHERHOOD), was brought in for some rewrites. This was now the third time the movie was starting over from scratch. Cheng Kang's completed portions with the female Guillotine squad headed by Shih Szu remained intact; as did some of what he shot with the Kiang Nan swordsmen. A number of his other scenes were deleted or reshot; either because Hua Shan wanted to shoot from his own angles, or these scenes linked with footage of Chen Kuan Tai that were now unusable. Other scenes weren't shot at all due to time and money. There was a push to get the film made; shortcuts were taken allowing for gaps in the plot to be painfully noticeable (insert: On-set image from Cheng Kang's footage shooting a scene involving Shih Szu and her all-female Guillotine squad; the cameraman is filming inside a camera-protective box while crewmembers toss shields into the air).

Several scenes with the Kiang Nan warriors were cut out or shot again. One of these do-overs is at the conclusion when the swordsmen swear to kill Yung Cheng. In Hua Shan's footage, Shih Szu is wearing her silk outfit with the headdress. But in Cheng Kang's footage, she's wearing an entirely different outfit (see above pic); and the warriors put their swords together in close-up as opposed to standing apart in a wide-shot while raising their blades into the air in Hua's footage.

A former DP turned hot shot director, two of Hua's cinematographer credits include Wang Yu's THE CHINESE BOXER (1970) and Cheng Kang's THE 14 AMAZONS (1972). He showed his willingness for difficult projects with his first Shaw directing gig, THE SUPER INFRAMAN (1975); a complicated SciFi movie with lots of special effects that had never been done before in HK (you can read our extensive 'Making Of' HERE). The movie failed to be a hit, but was a huge success in America and elsewhere. Hua Shan soon showed a knack for gritty crime thrillers, producing a big hit with the brutal modern day Triad thriller BROTHERHOOD (1976) starring DRAGON MISSILE's Tony Liu Yung (above pic: lobby card with alternate and or deleted shots)

Hua Shan's participation on the third entry in the CRIMINALS series was catastrophic as well, during the filming of Kuei Chi Hung's 'Arson' segment; the cast and crew were nearly killed when a real fire broke out inside the studio. With Hua's eagerness to learn and energy behind the camera, he was a good choice to take over FG2; a movie that was one of, if not the most troublesome production in Shaw Brothers history (above pic: alternate shot from Hua Shan's version. In the movie, you'll notice there's already another Guillotine attached to the other end of Ti Lung's Double Guillotine Counter Weapon).

"I think I've lost ten pounds taking on this job! There's been major personnel changes and the production costs are far beyond the budget. This is my first costume movie so if it doesn't do well please forgive me!"--Hua Shan, HKMN interview, April 1977.

The ever-busy Ti Lung took over the role of Ma Teng vacated by Chen Kuan Tai. The bubbly actress and former Miss Taiwan beauty pageant winner, Chen Szu Chia (see insert) took over the role of Ma's wife, Yu Lan--vacated first by Liu Wu Chi, and then Hsiao Yao, who quit the business entirely. Ms. Chen raised a lot of eyebrows in her debut for Kuei Chi Hung in the hit GHOST EYES (1974), a horror picture that started a wave of ghost and possession movies inspired by the box office smash, THE EXORCIST (1973). She became a regular face in a few dozen Shaw movies, mostly in costume action and dramas. She and Hsiao Yao were dormitory neighbors and were often seen and photographed together. But while Liu Wu Chi disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again, Hsiao Yao would resurface several months after her own disappearing act; although she too would telegraph a possible desire to exit the film world in October of '76.

"Filming is just a job for me. It's a bit of fun, of course, but my ambitions are not big. I'd rather just be a normal person. Life in Taiwan is more leisurely. There's no rhythm to living in Hong Kong. There comes a turning point in a woman's life, and she wants marriage."--Hsiao Yao, Southern Screen interview, October 1976

In December of 1976, Hsiao Yao (at left in insert pic with Chen Szu Chia) had went home to Taiwan for Christmas, but never returned to Movietown to resume filming and no one knew where to find her there. Other than FG2, she had worked several days on the now aborted 'The Whirlwind Kick'; what would've been David Chiang's fifth movie as director. Four months later in April of 1977, she was spotted at Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong where she was surrounded by reporters. Expressing shame and embarrassment over what she'd done, Hsiao later met with Mona Fong to discuss her contract in the hopes she would be released without any problems. She had lost all interest in the film world, having made up her mind to marry her boyfriend of two years.

Despite putting FG2 in turmoil yet again, and causing another movie she was to star in to cancel, Shaw released her from her contract under the condition she wouldn't work for another company after her wedding (several years earlier, Cheng Pei Pei quit Shaw's and the film world to get married but was lured back into the limelight by Shaw's rival, Golden Harvest not long after). In those days, it wasn't unusual for actresses to exit the industry once they desired marriage--the biggest role of their lives--taking on the responsibility of a family. Preferring her privacy and disliking media attention, Hsiao Yao nonetheless had a decent, albeit brief run in an eclectic mix of projects.

The dark cloud hovering over FG2 stayed even after principle photography was finally completed in June of 1977. Nancy Yen, a talented martial artist (at left and above with Shaw Yin Yin prior to filming THE DEADLY ANGELS), decided upon returning to HK after a vacation in Taiwan she would not be appearing in anymore Shaw productions after August of 77, citing dissatisfaction with the roles she was being given. Her role in FG2 was condensed further when Hua Shan came aboard to salvage the film; a part that was much smaller than what she had in DRAGON MISSILE. Prior to Chen Kuan Tai bolting from the FG2 set, Yen seemed a bit excited about her next project, a modern day action movie called 'Women Detectives'; later to be known as THE DEADLY ANGELS (1977), one of the Shaw Brothers' biggest box office hits. Designed as a riff on the American CHARLIES ANGELS television series, Yen starred alongside, Evelyn Kraft (THE MIGHTY PEKING MAN), Shaw Yin Yin (BIG BAD SIS), and Dana (COBRA GIRL)

After refusing for years to bare any skin on-screen, the conservative actress did go as far as showing off her figure in a bathing suit for the movie. When Nancy Yen left Shaw's she didn't quit the industry, but went back to making independent motion pictures before retiring in the early 1980s.

When FG2 was released in February of 1978, it did dismal business compared to all the effort and amount of money expended to get it made. With so many problems, it's amazing the film turned out as entertaining as it did; even with the abrupt edits making the rushed shooting obvious. Had Cheng Kang stayed on and not had all the problems he encountered, we would have a very different movie from the standpoint of exposition. Hua Shan's portions--through no fault of his own--have the barest minimum of characterization, leaving the film as little more than a series of action sequences strung together--all leading to an incredibly brutal finale. By the time Hua Shan finished the film (Cheng Kang was billed as co-director), and it was ready for release, there had already been a few other similar movies that were being shot while FG2 was in production--seeking to capitalize on the popularity of the weapon, and steal some of the potential box office of the legitimate sequel to the original Shaw Brothers creation.

In the summer months of 1977, there were four independent features either utilizing an equivalent weapon, or an outright ripoff. March of '77 saw the release of the Chin Sin Company's THE GREATEST PLOT aka 'The Eight Swordsmen in Kiang Nan' and 'Dragon and Tiger Heroes'. Director Ulysses Au Yeung Chun's movie (director of ISLAND WARRIORS; he co-directed POLICE FORCE with Chang Cheh in 1973) was a literal ripoff of FG2's plotline. It even featured Lo Lieh in a similar role and fellow Shaw star Yueh Hua essaying the part of Emperor Yung Cheng. A fairly lavish-looking production, the Guillotine-style weapon featured here looked like a metal sombrero.

Also in '77, there was Hwa Kuo Studio's SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE, a wild, boobytrap-filled Wuxia flick that had Chang Yi menacing the cast with his 'Bloody Birds'--a three pronged, spinning bladed weapon that operates in a similar capacity to the DRAGON MISSILE (1976). Its appearance is akin to the Glaive in KRULL (1983). The weapon is featured prominently on the poster, recalling the Flying Guillotine popularized in the original Shaw Brothers production. Directed by Chang Peng I, he worked at Shaw Brothers only one time, writing and directing the novel-based Swordplay picture, CLAN FEUDS (1982).

Then there was the Success Film Company's FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINES (1977) directed by Raymond Liu. This one had the court intrigue and Steel Umbrella of the Shaw picture mixed with the grizzle-haired, crazed monk of Wang Yu's cult favorite; here played by muscular, chisel-featured Chen Sing. The main villain sports two Guillotines, both of which look like giant metal thimbles with motorized blades. The plot is somewhat unique, only the title weapons are derivative. Looking more realistic than Wang Yu's interpretation, neither come close to the design of the original creation; that actually looked like it could work.

With FG2 struggling to get made, Wang Yu would strike again with THE DEADLY SILVER SPEAR (1977) directed by Sung Ting Mei for the Fortuna Film Company; the facility that financed his dismal ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN AGAINST NINE KILLERS (1976). Made at the height of Guillotine Mania, it's a colorfully bonkers Wuxia movie with a spinning top-style head-remover called The Death Ring. This particular Guillotine knock-off becomes the center of attention when the movie switches plots halfway through. The Death Ring features prominently on the poster as a major selling point--looking more like the Flying Guillotine than the Death Ring seen in the movie.

With so many airborne head-cleavers vying for box office dollars, audiences were likely suffering from Guillotine fatigue. FG2 must have made money in other Asian territories (not counting foreign sales) because, incredibly, the Shaw Brothers would revisit the subject one last time, in a noticeably cheaper and bittersweet finale to the saga; once more helmed by the man that started it all.

"I might retire from the movie world. My contract with Shaw Brothers is up in three months. We are nearing conditions of renewal, though. My relationship with [Sir Run Run Shaw] has been good since I came to work for him 20 years ago. Filming elsewhere can be unstable. There's convenience here and I can shoot anything I want. And I've done that for Shaw Brothers, shooting movies with many different types of themes."--Director Ho Meng Hua interview, HKMN, December 1977

During the extensive reshoots of FG2 (now under the aegis of Hua Shan), Ho Meng Hua, the director of the original, embarked on a loose sequel to his original trendsetter. Having already directed a flashy B movie clone of FG with DRAGON MISSILE (1976), this next endeavor was straight exploitation that relied heavily on stock FG footage, and came with radical differences. When asked about the flurry of 'Blood Drippers' that had come in the wake of his 1975 hit film, Ho had this to say in July of '77, "I don't want to be typecast as a director of Guillotine movies, nor do I wish to copy what others have done with the material."

'The Bloody Hibiscus', later to go by its international name of THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY, began filming in June of 1977. Promoted as being another entry in the 'Blood Dripper' series, it was a major departure in style and narrative from Ho's original and Hua Shan's and Cheng Kang's co-directed sequel that finally wrapped up that same month. One of the notable differences was a female lead in one of Hong Kong's biggest stars spanning all genres, Chen Ping. Ho Meng Hua's rape-revenge favorite KISS OF DEATH (1973) had made her an overnight sensation four years earlier. She was Hong Kong Cinema's Queen of Exploitation; but by the time she got the role of the title fighting flower, she'd tired of doing sexy roles regardless of the genre.

"I will never tire of making movies. I am 28 and don't wish to take off my clothes for the camera anymore. As long as there are good scripts, I'd like to make 3 of 4 movies per year to take care of life expenses and then run my own business. I never thought about making money in other ways, but this [nightclub] is my first career investment."--Chen Ping interview, Southern Screen, January 1977

After starring in a string of hits for Shaw Brothers Studio, Chen Ping wanted to leave her sex bomb persona behind her. When filming wrapped on her SEXY KILLER (1976) sequel, LADY EXTERMINATOR (1977), Chen Ping hoped that picture would be a success, taking her in a new direction from the types of movies she'd been doing since making it as a leading lady in 1973. By this point, Chen had saved enough money to be set for life, remarking, "After four years of filming I finally have my own little world." She would expand on her cinema popularity by opening a business. On November 18th, 1976 Chen Ping's Another World Disco Nightclub and Bar opened in Tsim Sha Tsui. In 1978, she'd bought a home outside of Movietown as a birthday present to herself for her 30th birthday on July 7th.

On the downside, her marriage to a shipping company manager only lasted four months; and finding herself with few true friends in HK's film world--where everyone was competing for more and better roles--led to a growing disenchantment with the industry. Raised up poor in Taiwan, she worked hard to help her parents at home and put her brother through college. A rags to riches story, Chen Ping had worked incredibly hard to make her fortune and reached a point in her career where she wanted to hang up her Exploitation Queen crown. Other actresses tried to carry the mantle like Lin Jian Min (1975s BALD-HEADED BETTY) and Jenny Liang (1981s BLOODY PARROT), but Chen Ping remains the most successful HK actress to cross both erotica and action genre lines.

"I like the character I'm playing in 'The Bloody Hibiscus'. She has good martial arts skills and I'm not playing a sexy role this time. There's lots of action and it's hard work. Sometimes I'm shooting two sets of movies a day with barely any time to eat or sleep."--Chen Ping, Southern Screen, August 1977.

Aside from being a fighting female with a unique spear weapon, Chen Ping's character is pregnant. Fighting through the bulk of the movie with child while being punched, kicked, and leaping through the air to avoid swords and Guillotines added a queasy ambiance to the film. The pregnancy aspect of the script was heavily hyped in the press. Her character's miscarriage by a river near the end drew comparisons to the abortion issue that was a hot topic in HK at the time. Chen Ping commented on her feelings on the topic shortly before the film's release with, "I think abortion should depend on the situation. If a woman is raped, having an illegitimate child, or if the child will have mental deficiencies, then abortion should be a necessary alternative in my personal opinion. However, I do not advocate that abortion should be legalized, because this will lead to irresponsible sexual encounters and promiscuity; especially in today's era of sexual liberation. An abortion should be dealt with according to the specific situation." Abortion was legalized in Hong Kong in February of 1981.

The casting of freelance actress Shaw Yin Yin  (at left and above in two shots not in the release version) carried the weight of the exploitation element Chen Ping wished to put behind her. Chen does have a brief nude scene where she's mostly covered, but Shaw Yin Yin goes one step further by having a topless fight scene. Prior to filming THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978), the famous erotica actress caused a stir at the Cannes Film Festival in May of '77, making headlines in the Asian entertainment community. There to publicize an independent production (that never got made) tentatively titled 'The Unhappy Concubine', it was reported she was discussing the film with foreign press while wearing a see-through dress. The HK media called her a "disgrace to Chinese people", but according to Shaw Yin Yin, the reports were exaggerated, stating she was wearing silk trousers underneath the dress. Growing up poor in HK, she later studied five years in nursing before turning her attention to the film industry. According to Ms. Yin, her busiest years would have her making 12 movies a year at Shaw Brothers and still finding time for independent work. She had one of the longest running careers of any Asian film actress.

A former stock market accountant, Norman Tsui Siu Keung (above talking to Ti Lung) was a graduate of Shaw's third class in their Actor's Training Academy. He'd appeared in several small roles with little to no dialog; one of which was a role as a member of the Guillotine squad in Ho's original classic. He had a particularly nasty death scene in Ho's DRAGON MISSILE (1976) as well. 'The Bloody Hibiscus' would be his biggest role up to that time. He got the co-lead role of Ma Teng; previously performed by Chen Kuan Tai, then Ti Lung in FG2; that was still shooting when Ho's loose sequel began filming. Tsui remarked about the role at the time, "Should my Ma Teng be different from Chen and Ti Lung? What do they have in common? If this were another role it would be a lot easier! But then, it's also good because it will force me to do the part well if I am to be compared to the others." In a few years, Norman Tsui would become a popular leading man in both television and movies (insert: deleted scene of Norman Tsui's Ma Teng wearing a mask fighting the Guillotine Squad with a modified Steel Umbrella).

Lo Lieh, the busiest man in Hong Kong in those days, turned up in his third Shaw-produced Guillotine flick as the main villain under the employ of the Emperor (played by Frankie Wei Hung, the main villain from FG and support to Lo Lieh in FG2); this time sending his children to kill The Bloody Hibiscus and Ma Teng. Curiously, Lo is playing the same character that Frankie Wei Hung played in FG2. 1978 was Lo's busiest year--amassing a staggering 25 movies in release; and 23 in release the year prior. Wracking up well over 200 credits, the Indonesian-born actor died from a heart attack in November of 2002 at only 63 years of age. He remains one of the genres most recognizable faces and one of its best actors.

"This film will not emphasize sex and violence as it is today. But if I wanted to make the types of films I made before, the audience will not accept it. Viewers will go to see a movie just to watch sex as opposed to a movie with a theme. There used to be a curiosity to sex in movies and now they show everything. There's no longer any mystery to it. I'm feeling more and more that making movies in today's environment is not to my liking."--Ho Meng Hua interview, Southern Screen, January 1978

Ho Meng Hua had shot most all genre styles, but one he wasn't interested in was the burgeoning erotica film genre. Li Han Hsiang popularized the pictures, but did so in an elegant fashion with his meticulous attention to detail that made such endeavors look glamorous by nature. Ho had already directed movies with nudity in them; but some of his later pictures used it gratuitously, something he didn't care for. THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY is one example; another being a horror film he was working on at the same time, the rare THE PSYCHOPATH (1978). Director Ho tended to shy away from reporters and preferred his privacy. By this point in his career, he seemed more vocal; and that was likely due to his growing lack of enthusiasm for the industry (insert: director Ho Meng Hua holds a ladder while Lo Lieh rehearses a stunt shot not used in the movie).

Released in HK in March of 1978, THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY didn't do particularly well there, although it was reported in Shaw's periodicals the film was doing good business; likely in other Asian territories as Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan (insert: Chen Ping and Shaw Yin Yin taking a break).

It brought an end to the three year theatrical fascination with the Flying Guillotine. The plot device of an Imperial secret hit squad was explored in other movies like Lu Chin Ku's explosive SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984)--a mixture of FG, KILLER CONSTABLE (1980), and Japan's LONE WOLF AND CUB series. There were no Guillotine weapons, but it did star DRAGON MISSILE's Tony Liu Yung as an evil, throne-usurping eunuch.

The weapon did turn up in the wacky Indonesian fantasy THE DEVIL'S SWORD (1983); and again in Johnny To's wild, SciFi martial arts actioner THE HEROIC TRIO (1993). Produced and action design by Ching Siu Tung (the son of FG2 co-director Cheng Kang), Anthony Wong is a nearly indestructible assassin who uses a Flying Guillotine that is similar to the design of the 1975 original (above pic: VENGEFUL BEAUTY lobby card depicting deleted fight scene in top left box)

Then there was a much-ballyhooed remake of the Shaw Brothers movie first announced in 2009 as 'The Flying Guillotines' with Dante Lam as director. This too, was a troubled production. Early artwork (see insert) recalled the 1975 original, although that would change. Reportedly, another picture Lam was attached to, THE VIRAL FACTOR, received the go-ahead so he was out and Teddy Chen (2009s BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS) was in the director's seat. Then, shortly before shooting was to begin, Teddy Chen had a falling out with producer Peter Chan so he was replaced with Andrew Lau, director of THE STORM RIDERS (1998) and INFERNAL AFFAIRS (2002). When the movie was set for its December 2012 release, it was simply titled THE GUILLOTINES. This vastly disappointing, big budget production looked more like the Dragon Missile than the Flying Guillotine. Along with its potentially awesome premise, it also inexplicably disposed of its title weapon 15 minutes into the movie, never to be seen again.

The Golden Age Guillotine films, though, continued to be favorites overseas in cinemas and television airings for decades--recently finding audiences new and old on DVD and blu-ray in countries around the world. The weapon's mystique remains so palpable, it was even featured on an episode of MYTHBUSTERS in 2011. With special emphasis on Ho Meng Hua's trendsetting motion picture, the films remain fondly, and even frighteningly remembered to this day.

*This article used over three dozen magazines and newspaper clippings for information and or photos: Southern Screen, Hong Kong Movie News, Cinemart, Golden Movie News, Asian Entertainment Magazine, International Screen, Fighting Stars, Movie News, and Saturday Weekly. FG, FG2, VENGEFUL BEAUTY lobbies from the authors personal collection.*

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