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Monday, June 8, 2020

The Flying Guillotines: History of the Shaw Brothers Trendsetter, its sequel and Imitators Part 1

"I really like the script; not from a martial arts standpoint, but the innovative plot and the reliance on characterization. I am really confident in making this movie. If I am successful, I hope I can create a new concept of action pictures."--Director Ho Meng Hua, Southern Screen, April 1974.

THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) isn't just one of Hong Kong cinema's finest achievements, it's one of the greatest gimmick movies ever conceived; fondly remembered by fans since its initial theatrical release and subsequent television airings. Along with other movies like Chang Cheh's THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) and his Shaolin cycle of films that explored China's other historical heroes, Ho Meng Hua's quasi-historical thriller was among the colony's most influential pictures; birthing sequels and assorted clones over the years. This article covers the productions of the Guillotine movies, offering a look into the often frustratingly chaotic situations actors, directors, and producers found themselves in while making them during the wild and woolly Golden Age of Hong Kong Action Cinema.

In January 1974, production began on 'The Bloodthirsty Gang', the tentative English title to one of Hong Kong cinema's most famous, and influential motion pictures--what would later be known as THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975). The legendary weapon is said to have been the handiwork of skilled bladesmen of western China; a weapon so fearsome, no documents exist that detail what the head-cleaving contraption actually looked like. It struck such a chord in Asia and on the international market upon its release, the weapon became an object of frightening and popular curiosity that stretches to this day.

The weapons origins date back to the reign of the vicious emperor Yung Cheng (Yong Zheng) of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty who ruled from 1722-1735 AD. How much of I Kuang's (or Ni Kuang) script is historically accurate, though, is as mysterious as the weapon itself. It was the unusual script that initially attracted director Ho to the project in the first place. One of HK's most versatile filmmakers, this was a major departure from Ho's previous works (the award winning SUSANNA from 1967; the acclaimed musical fantasies of the JOURNEY TO THE WEST quartet; and a slew of swordplay dramas). Having completed some modern day dramas that were trending at the time, it was back to period settings for THE FLYING GUILLOTINE; or, under its Chinese translated title, 'The Blood Dripper'. (insert pic: Chen Kuan Tai fights off two Guillotine assassins in a behind the scenes image)

Casting the leads was relatively simple. Chen Kuan Tai was riding a wave of hits that began with THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG, his first major role for the Shaw Brothers. Casting the female lead was more difficult. Ho needed the right actress and he found her in Liu Wu Chi (insert at left), an attractive, down-to-earth starlet from Taiwan that had signed with the company in July of 1970.

Formerly a model and beauty pageant winner, Ai Ti (insert at right) became one of Shaw's most popular sex bomb actresses. She has a minor role as a gift from the emperor to one of the Guillotine squad members.

The story of the notorious head slicer had been filmed at least twice before in a 1956 production and another in the early 70s, THE BLIND SWORDSMAN'S REVENGE, that pitted a Chinese clone of the Japanese Zatoichi in a death struggle with the Flying Guillotine wielded by Chiang Tao, a Taiwanese actor that signed with Shaw Brothers in February of 1972.

Ho Meng Hua wanted to avoid a fantasy approach of these earlier movies and go for one grounded in reality. Even this seemingly unbelievable weapon was treated with as much realism as possible. Elaborating on the weapon, director Ho said, "In the beginning, I thought [the guillotine] was fictional; but from documents in historical records it did exist. In appearance it looked something like a hat."  (above pic: Chen Kuan Tai, Ho Meng Hua, Liu Wu Chi, and AD Hung Ko go over a scene in the script)

With a title like THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, you'd expect a typically gruesome Shaw Brothers production. While there is bloody violence, Ho Meng Hua wanted to minimize showing too much cruelty; preferring to cut away quickly or leave it to the imagination. He also wanted to focus more attention on characterization than fighting. One of the most unique facets of I Kuang's script is the variance in the characters and the film's realism. There are no flying swordsmen of the Wuxia universe or superhuman feats; everything is grounded in reality in its depiction of human nature. As director Ho put it, it was the "something new" he was looking for.

"Director Ho Meng Hua utilizes a new shooting method and perspective in humanizing his characters in [THE FLYING GUILLOTINE]; a film with twists and elements of horror."--HKMN blurb, May 1974. 

Described in articles of the time as "James Bond in the Qing Dynasty", the deadly 'Blood Dripper' is a far more sadistic weapon than Q Branch would likely cook up for 007. The ingenuity of its design, though, would no doubt be worthy of Bond's trustworthy gadget-maker. The assassin spy unit of Yung Cheng's secret killer guard were compared to the modern day secret agents working for various intelligence agencies around the world. This Bondian comparison aided in promoting the movie, and highlighted its status as a new and different style of action film that director Ho wanted to make.

Ho Meng Hua found shooting the sequences involving the weapon itself an arduous task. Only one Flying Guillotine used in the movie was made from actual, workable materials. This is likely the one Hsin Kang (Ku Feng) devises and shows off to the emperor. It's a remarkable construction and certainly looks frightening enough at its unveiling. But filming the scenes of the weapon in action were not the only difficulties; showing the characters throwing it in view of its targets presented another problem. For example, in the training scenes when the characters are flinging the flying head-snatchers at the wooden men dozens of takes were filmed till it looked reasonably good on-screen. It took over 60 days to complete the shooting. However, filming the special effects shots of the title head-lopper (and a new ending) took longer.

In those days, they didn't use cranes for shots done high above. They would build bamboo towers to accomplish these photographic takes; sometimes these towers would have extensions that acted in the same capacity as a crane, only they were manually operated by crew members. For THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, director Ho and DP Hsao Hui Chi (see insert) devised the methods to shoot the complex shots of the guillotine flying through the air and coming into contact with various objects. Ho had initially thought to bring in a Japanese crew but the decision was made he and his cinematographer would figure it out between them.

Because of the difficulties in photographing the weapon and additional location shooting, it took close to a year to finish the movie. The final script contained details that were either scrapped early on, cut out, or not shot at all. Below are a handful of plot points and sequences that were changed from what ended up on-screen as detailed in a script adaptation in a Shaw's Southern Screen magazine.

1. Initially, when the assassins would embark on their murderous missions, they would destroy the headless corpses with an acidic, poisonous pill so as to leave no trace of the bodies. This was done away with since, likely, there would be no reason for the Guillotine gang to go through the trouble of removing heads when all they'd need to do is sneak into the victims homes and dissolve their bodies there; and FG would've been a far less intriguing movie.

2. Tian Fu's (played by Wong Yu) outburst where he yells out "I won't be the emperor's murderer!" originally took place in the assassins meeting room below the palace as opposed to freaking out while on a mission. His speech decrying them all as animals for being murderers for the emperor was removed since Ma Teng (played by Chen Kuan Tai) makes a similar proclamation after Tian and his wife are slain.

3. Tian's death was longer as originally written. When the Guillotine flies through the window he attempts to block it with a chair. Cutting through it he picks up a few more chairs but to no avail. Retreating to the door, he's unable to escape before the hood drops down and decapitates him. In the film, Tian's head is instantly severed once the Guillotine bursts through the window.

4. There were major alterations to the script as shot in the final quarter of the picture. One example was in the fate of Chief Hsin Kang (played by Ku Feng) and another is the finale. Essentially, the entire last 30 minutes of the movie had events rearranged or shot differently. In the movie, the treacherous Xu Shuang Kung (played by Frankie Wei Hung)--who has spent the whole movie betraying his brothers to win favor with the Emperor--kills Hsin Kang after framing him so he can lead the killer squad. But as originally written, Xu is loyal to Hsin Kang the entire time.

5. In the sequence where Luo Peng (played by Lin Wei-Tu) finds Ma's home, having been unaware that Xu Shuang Kung has followed him, has his head taken by Xu while trying to protect Ma's wife and child. Xu's Guillotine is destroyed when Ma uses Luo's against it. Xu then enters the hut and tries to kill Ma and his family with a knife but is forced to retreat after other farmers in the village attack him. The scripted version plays out much differently. Instead, after Xu flings his Guillotine into Ma's home, both Ma and Luo avoid losing their noggins. Luo quickly slings his own Guillotine outside as Xu simultaneously returns fire; both Xu and Luo take each other's heads. Just before, Xu yells out "Luo Peng!" and screams as blood erupts from the stump where his head used to be. As nervous reactions in the arms jerk the chains to allow the two Guillotines to return to their lifeless owners, their heads roll out (insert pic: deleted execution scene used in promotional materials).

6. At that moment, Hsin Kang arrives with the rest of the Guillotine squad and chase Ma Teng down a mountainside after hiding his wife and child inside an old, decrepit temple. Ma evades capture and lays low in a small village where he devises a method to defeat the Guillotine--that turns out to be the Steel Umbrella. The confrontation in the village was originally the ending. Ma uses his new weapon to counter the Guillotines and kills the remaining members including Hsin Kang. In the movie, this sequence precedes a final confrontation with Xu Shuang Kung and the few remaining assassins on a mountain overlooking the sea. This sequence was added later. The new ending demanded more shooting (approximately 20 more working days) as the crew had to take additional precautions for the required climbing and filming in and around rocky terrain.

During the filming of THE FLYING GUILLOTINE in 1974, Chen Kuan Tai, much to his surprise, won 'Most Popular Male Star'; an award given by the Taipei Press Association at the 20th Asian Film Awards ceremony (he'd also won a Male Youth Award from the Chamber of Commerce). At that time, reporters were asking Chen about his popularity outside of Hong Kong in other Asian territories. He expressed interest in Taiwan and elsewhere, stating he'd met with filmmakers in Thailand and Indonesia about methods of film production and markets in those areas. Stating, "I feel more confident than Big Brother Cheng!" This was a humorous aside to the character he played in the just-wrapped Triad drama THE TEA HOUSE for director Kuei Chi Hung.

Chen was separated from his wife at the time, and had already attracted the attention of Miss Hong Kong runner-up Cai Zhen Ni. This realization of his popularity and ever-increasing star-status, coupled with his growing curiosity to be in total control of his career was the first sign that Chen had ambitious, if disastrous plans that would play a major role in his occupational path in the latter months of 1976.

As for Ho Meng Hua... In December of 1974, the versatile filmmaker went straight from imperial hit squads to modern day curses with another trendsetter, the Malay-set BLACK MAGIC (1975). Ho quickly followed this up with another folkloric, Malaysian-set curse flick in THE OILY MANIAC (1976). In roughly eight months, Ho would revisit plots dealing with weapons that specialize in the removal of heads; although this next venture would plant the action firmly within the Wuxia universe.

THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) was released in HK in February of 1975 to good box office. It wouldn't be long before imitations would appear; some of which came from the Shaw Studio itself. 

One of these bore the working title of 'The Guillotine' (Chinese title: Flying Dragon Blade). Beginning production in August of 1975, Ho Meng Hua was at the helm cloning his own hit creation. An economical and efficient director, the sort that the Shaw's admired, Ho didn't take a year to film his next assignment on the subject of decapitating contraptions. However, he was faced with new challenges in shooting this new weapon that would ultimately become THE DRAGON MISSILE (1976).

"It's difficult to highlight the terrifying power of the Flying Dragon weapon in this movie without modern special effects. If the audience gets a sense of fear from the use of this strange weapon, then they'll believe what they're seeing is real."--Ho Meng Hua, Southern Screen, April 1976.


Inspired by the boomerang (a weapon often cited as being of Australian origin; only in recent years it's been discovered to go as far back as 2,000 years ago in Egypt), this new head-cleaver was ballyhooed as being a cut above the Flying Guillotine in that it was easier to carry and no reliance on a chain. An historical weapon with added Chinese ingenuity and ample creative license, 'The Guillotine' was touted as director Ho's advancement of the type of action picture he mentioned while making his earlier Qing Dynasty dramatic thriller; only here, the realism of FG was abandoned for a typical Wuxia scenario where the participants have a variety of special weapons and possess abilities unlike normal human beings.

Aside from Lo Lieh's starring role as the master of the Dragon Missile, the cast was a mixture of old pros, fresh faces to Shaw's company, and up-and-comers. Tony Liu Yung started his career at Hong Kong's other major studio at that time, Golden Harvest; and was a close childhood friend of Bruce Lee. Liu's friendship with Lee was something of a promotional tool--attracting more attention than the movie he was starring in (there was a Bruce Lee biopic being filmed at Shaw Studio at this time as well, starring and co-produced by Lee's lover, Betty Ting Pei). Growing up together, the two friends were separated when Bruce went to the United States in 1959. Years later, Liu Yung was making a movie in Thailand and, to his surprise, so was Bruce Lee. The two had much catching up to do and Lee made sure to find a role for Liu in his movies.

DRAGON MISSILE was Liu's first Shaw Brothers picture. During the filming, Liu began shooting two other movies--EMPEROR CHIEN LUNG (1976) and the violent modern day gangster movie BROTHERHOOD (1976) for former DP turned hotshot director Hua Shan; a filmmaker who would soon find himself embroiled in the Flying Guillotine Story. Liu Yung's interest in the film world came from his mother, Li Wen, a veteran actress. He had a brother who was a sales rep and four sisters, all of whom were teachers. Asked about his mother's influence on his becoming an actor Liu said, "She never interfered with whatever we wanted to do. She let us choose our own paths. When I was a kid, I used to accompany my mother to movie sets and I made friends within film circles." A Karate and Hapkido practitioner as well as a ladies man, Liu quickly became one of HK's biggest stars. Like FG, I Kuang wrote the character-heavy DM script and revised it during filming to expand Liu's role (insert pic of Liu Yung and DM co-star Nancy Yen).

"I like filming, but I don't like the filming world."--Nancy Yen, HKMN October 1975

Nancy Yen (Yen Nan Si) was among the numerous fighting females of Asian cinema that did many movies but never quite broke out like Cheng Pei Pei, Shih Szu, or Angela Mao Ying. After a few major roles including the lead in 1972s BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) clone, MA SU CHEN (THE REBEL BOXER), the Taiwanese actress left First Films and headed for HK where she signed a 12 film deal with Shaw Brothers in August of 1974. Citing the advanced equipment and filming techniques of the company, she wanted to make other movies besides fighting ones. Unfortunately, she never got the chance as fighting roles was all she received; appearing in only five films before leaving Shaw's Movietown as well.

According to Ms. Yen at the time, she wanted to perform in non-fighting roles because of injuries from her past martial arts pictures--having a small scar on her nose from one such accident while filming in Taiwan. Another issue was having to cut her curly hair to make it easier to wear the wigs required of the period settings. A conservative woman, she refused to do nudity and left a prior production in Taiwan that required her to be in a rape scene and fully exposed on-camera. Her static, somber expressions in her films was her looks off-camera, too. Her first film for Shaw's was DRAGON MISSILE (1976), commenting at the time, "I'm playing the daughter of a pharmacist who is killed and I am avenging him. It's another story of revenge." 

If Ms. Yen wasn't entirely happy with her start at the company, her next part playing basically the same role in FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978) was nothing short of a disaster in the making.

If any one actor worked around the clock it was Lo Lieh. He'd been in and out of Shaw Studio for a while, but had the lead in Ho Meng Hua's DRAGON MISSILE (1976) and a supporting role in Cheng Kang's troubled FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (when he was originally the sole director). Lo remarked during a break on the DM set, "I was cultivated by Shaw Brothers. I have worked for the company for many years and it was only in the last few that I asked the boss to allow me to make movies elsewhere. He accepted. Boss Shaw has been very kind to me." At this point in his career, Lo Lieh was already set for life. He took roles big and small; whether hero or villain. Lo Lieh simply loved making money and movies whether in HK, Taiwan, or Thailand. His role as Sima Jun in DRAGON MISSILE was just another job to him, referring to the hot summer and cooler winter climbs during the four month shoot.

Director Ho, a private man who was known for typically shying away from interviews, seemed to treat this movie as a job to check another picture off his contract requirement. Aside from the intriguing title weapon, the only other aspect of the filming Ho found stimulating was a harrowing sequence where the heroes chase Lo Lieh's character into the ocean, in and around rocks where the cold water was crashing into them.

The film got an additional publicity boost when the president of Kodak and his wife toured Shaw Studio on September 19th, 1975 (see insert). Among the film sets they visited were the Imperial Palace Pavilion built for Li Han Hsiang's two Empress Dowager epics; a courtyard set; and an interior set where DRAGON MISSILE was filming. Lo chatted with them about filmmaking during a break in the shooting.

Other than expanding Liu Yung's character, there wasn't much changed or cut from the picture. One cut sequence involved Shaw Brothers sexpot Terry Liu (THE BAMBOO HOUSE OF DOLLS; THE SUPER INFRAMAN) trying to impress Liu Yung with her fishing skills by using her lethal finger needles to catch them (see insert).

With the Shaw Brothers cloning their own hit movie, there were others working for independent companies making copies of their own. One of these would come from a former Shaw superstar with a seething disdain for his ex-employer; a man with a tumultuous, sometimes violent lifestyle worthy of its own big screen adaptation.


Not one to let a good thing go to waste, Jimmy Wang Yu hopped on the Guillotine band-wagon to write and direct his own version; that picture being the cult favorite, ONE-ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976); aka ONE-ARMED BOXER 2, and known here as MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE. A long-standing rivalry between Big Boss Run Run Shaw and the Furious Fists of Jimmy Wang Yu began in 1970; boiling over when the hot-headed actor broke his contract to make movies elsewhere with subsequent lawsuits following him.

Wang Yu had made several back-to-back hit movies for the company--one of which he directed, the seminal THE CHINESE BOXER (1970). Wang had been at the company since 1963, but signed a new five year deal in February of 1968; stipulating he make 5 films a year for a total of 25 by contracts end. Directing was not part of the deal, but after continuous requests, Shaw relented and allowed him to do so.

However, Wang was dissatisfied with his pay and when Shaw refused to budge on increasing his remuneration, the rebel superstar bailed. Shaw ran his company like a business. You had to prove yourself by working your way up the ladder. Wang Yu, though, was temperamental and prone to outbursts and fighting inside Movietown. It's likely Shaw was trying to reign in his unruly star and Wang Yu refused to be tamed. Wang Yu's rebellious nature would become far worse over the course of the decade; shedding light onto Shaw's foresight that rewarding Wang Yu's short-fused attitude would do nothing to curb it.

With only four films completed on his contract, Wang Yu fled to Taiwan in March of 1970 to make movies for independent companies, and also for Shaw's then struggling competitor, Golden Harvest--a new film company started in 1970 by Shaw's former publicity manager, Raymond Chow. Shaw then filed a breach of contract suit with the District Court in Taipei. After several months the case was awarded in favor of Wang Yu--citing the contract submitted by Shaw was a copy and not the original arrangement.

Not long after, Raymond Chow sent Wang to Japan to film a collaboration with Katsu Productions titled ZATOICHI AND THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1971). Upon Wang's arrival in Tokyo, he was informed Shaw was attempting to sue him there as well. That case went nowhere as the Japanese courts didn't recognize Chinese law. 

In the late 60s and early 70s, it was Shaw that had done an exchange of talent between Hong Kong and Japan; with several Japanese filmmakers and technicians working on HK productions with both sides learning something from the other. THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) was also the movie that made Jimmy Wang Yu famous; so naturally, this maneuver of shooting a co-production with Japan using a character that was a smash hit property of Shaw Brothers by two ex-Shaw employees had to irritate their former boss (Jimmy Wang Yu in insert pic being bloodied up during the filming of Chang Cheh's smash hit GOLDEN SWALLOW; exteriors shot in Japan).

Shaw's third attempt was successful. He hired two English lawyers to take legal action against Wang Yu in HK. Reportedly, Wang had just returned to HK from Tokyo and hadn't left the airport when he received a court summons. Allegedly, there was also an attempt to detain Wang Yu from appearing at a Singapore film circle event around the same time. In the end, the HK courts sided with Shaw. Wang Yu was not allowed to make movies or appear on television in Hong Kong, or any other form of motion picture promotion, till his contract expired on January 30th, 1973.

It's worth noting that production companies suing their contract players wasn't something exclusive to major studios. Even the independents would sue if their actors committed breach of contract. First Films, for example, the Taiwanese indy company Wang Yu made several of his films for (including ONE-ARMED BOXER 2), sued famous female Kung Fu star, Polly Shang Kuan Ling-Fung (who had quite a colorful personality of her own) in 1975 for breach of contract--requiring she pay back the remaining monies as per the stipulations in the arrangement. When she refused, the head of the company, Huang Zhou Han, issued a series of suits against her. At the time, Shang Kuan stated, "Of the six trials I've won three and lost the rest with no appeals. But I'm not paying back the money because I don't have it. I'd rather go to jail then pay the money. I'm a black belt so who would bully me there? However, I'm willing to negotiate." An award winning actress, Polly Shang Kuan won Best Leading Actress for BACK ALLEY PRINCESS (1973) at the 11th Annual Golden Horse Awards in Taipei in October of 1973 (see insert).

Going back to the Jimmy Wang Yu situation, the hot-tempered young actor decided to find a way to annoy his old boss and make money in the process; that way was making movies--particularly movies that were cash-ins on profitable Shaw productions. This included various incarnations of his blockbusters THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1967) directed by Chang Cheh and the aforementioned THE CHINESE BOXER (1970). Wang would combine the two for such cheap, but popular efforts like THE ONE-ARMED BOXER (1972) and various swordplays where he essayed single-armed bladesmen.

His court battles with Run Run Shaw weren't over, even after the contract expiration. He was also required to reimburse an advance of $11,125. The actor attempted to fight this as well, and lost. When Wang failed to pay, he was once more detained on February 11th, 1974 and had to surrender his passport till his court date and settling of the case. 

In March 1975, Wang Yu claimed in an interview with Cinemart he was having money troubles. He and his wife were divorcing and he had a run of bombs at the box office. Making movies in Hong Kong in those days was not like making movies in Hollywood. It was a lot like a 9 to 5 job, and the competition was far more voluminous in the number of films made and released in any given year. At this time, Wang was taking care of his family during the day and filming at night (above pic: Wang Yu directing himself on the set of THE CHINESE BOXER in late 1969).

Unlike his tenure at Shaw Brothers working for director Chang Cheh, Wang was less consistent in making hit movies in HK for other companies. Nonetheless, he made enough money to live a lavish lifestyle in Taiwan in a sprawling, three-story, Spanish-style home with several cars (including a Porsche that, according to him, was the only such one in Taiwan), marble walls and floors, and four servants.

Stating during this 4am interview, "I no longer have confidence in working for major studios. I intend to focus on making movies for independent companies. I'm also open to working for Chang Cheh again." At that time, Chang Cheh, the director that made him famous, was making movies in Taiwan under his own Long Bow company using Shaw capital that couldn't be taken out of the country. This would have been an awkward scenario considering Chang's movies, made autonomously outside of the Shaw Studio, were financed and distributed by them. Even though Wang Yu would've been hired by Chang, he'd basically be a Shaw employee again. He did reunite with Chang Cheh in 1984 for SHANGHAI 13 (insert pic of Wang in promotion for 1976s A QUEEN'S RANSOM, his last major role for Golden Harvest).

Also, Liu Chia Liang (Chang Cheh's choreographer for about a decade) was about to leave Chang's camp and return to HK to become a director in his own right. Unfortunately, both men had a falling out during the filming of MARCO POLO (1975); one report stated that Chang had promised Liu he could direct a film for Long Bow that never materialized. Another story is that Chang became incensed that Liu was helping Wang out on ONE-ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976) while he was in Taiwan.

Later on, when Liu completed CHALLENGE OF THE MASTERS (1976) in February of '76, he returned to Taiwan for a few days to see how Wang Yu was coming along with TIGER AND CRANE FISTS, his next kung fu project after wrapping his Guillotine clone (above pic: Wang, with a bandaged hand, talks with Li Ching at the 11th Annual Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan in October, 1973).

"In private, I am still good friends with Wang Yu. Regardless of his issues with Shaw, Wang and I have been old friends since he first came to work for Shaw. Originally, the script for TIGER AND CRANE FISTS was my own. Wang Yu liked it. I owed him a favor so I gave it to him. I was supposed to be martial arts director on this movie but it was inconvenient at the time so I gave the project to my brother, Liu Chia Yung."--Liu Chia Liang interview, Southern Screen, March 1976.

Both Liu brothers (elder Liu Chia Liang and younger Liu Chia Yung) did the action choreography on Wang's FG copy. Aside from TIGER AND CRANE FISTS (1976), Wang's ripoff of Chang Cheh's HEROES TWO (1974), the younger Liu worked on another Wang Yu picture, ONE-ARMED CHIVALRY FIGHTS AGAINST ONE-ARMED CHIVALRY (1977; insert pic of the Thai poster). Wang's ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN AGAINST NINE KILLERS (1976) failed to cut through the competition; and neither did ONE-ARMED SWORDSMEN (1976), aka TWO ONE-ARMED HEROES, a much-ballyhooed partnership with David Chiang for their one-off Wang-Wei Company (above pic of co-director Wang and fight choreographer Han Ying Chieh going over the script). Interest in the Guillotine, however, was still hot.

ONE-ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976) was the most successful of Wang's single-armed movies. Made for the First Films Company stationed in Taiwan, president Huang Zhou Han ran one of the most competitive independent production facilities that prospered from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Many indy companies produced a single film or managed to produce several before closing down. Competing with majors like Shaw's and Golden Harvest were minor issues facing an industry where major market changes from other Asian territories affected them all by the middle of the 1970s. 

Wang Yu starred in nine films for Huang's company. His FURIOUS SLAUGHTER (1972; see insert), a First Films riff on Shaw's blockbuster THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) directed by Chang Cheh, was also a big success; although the sequel MA SU CHEN aka THE REBEL BOXER (1972) starring Nancy Yen as Ma's sister was not. There was a loose third entry for another company titled QUEEN OF FIST (1973), aka KUNG FU MAMA (released in America through Crown International) that was supposed to feature Wang reprising his interpretation of Ma Yung Chen alongside his Kung Fu fighting mother played by Hsieh Chin Chu (although they did work together at First Films on the modern day Kung Fu flick KNIGHT ERRANT that same year). Wang's ultra-cheap clone of THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975) was one of, if not First Film's biggest hit of 1976 of the dozen made by the company in 1975. It was also Wang Yu's biggest hit of the nine pictures he made for the company.

Likely not a coincidence, both THE DRAGON MISSILE and Wang Yu's ONE-ARM/FG mash-up came out the same day on April 24th, 1976. Both were formula pictures but DM, despite looking more expensive, featuring a unique weapon, and being little more than glossy exploitation, suffered badly at the box office. Meanwhile, Wang Yu's ridiculously cheap and overwrought actioner with its compact Guillotine that looks like a Kippah, was a hit and eventual cult sensation. Incidentally, Wang would find himself at the center of a deadly altercation the night before his movie premiered.

As fate would have it, Chen Kuan Tai, star of the original THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975), would follow a similar path to Wang Yu. While both men's strong personalities were like kindred spirits where film circles were concerned, Wang's arrogance led him into the world of organized crime that intensified between the years 1976-1981. Wang was frequently in the news for involvement in crimes ranging from illegal gambling, to brawling, the target in assassination attempts, and a suspect in a murder case. You ask any Asian old enough to remember Wang Yu and they often refer to him as "The Gangster".

On the night of April 23rd, 1976, Wang Yu was fingered as the instigator in a deadly gang altercation between the Bamboo Alliance and the Four Seas Gang; two Triad groups that had been at war with one another for nearly 20 years. This incident at the Xing Hua Pavilion Restaurant in Taipei left four dead and one injured by gunshot. Wang Yu tried to evade investigation by hopping a plane to HK, but was arrested and faced 10 years in prison. In the end, Wang got a reduced sentence of just five months.

In 1980, Wang's family was threatened on two occasions after infuriating the leader of the Four Seas when the actor caused him to lose face over declining to participate in a casino show after Wang lost $1 million at the place. The situation exacerbated from there.

In broad daylight on the afternoon of January 10th, 1981, Wang Yu was eating at the Tianchu Restaurant in Taipei and was nearly killed by five members of the Four Seas; stabbing him seven times. Suffering serious blood loss, he feared he'd be killed while in hospital and left on his own accord eight days later. Seeking help from the Bamboo Alliance, it was in April of '81 that Liu Tie Chu, the man Wang said orchestrated his attempted murder, was nearly killed by Bamboo members; suffering double the stab wounds (as required by the Brotherhood), and sustaining partial disability for life.

On May 8th, 1981, Wang appeared in Taipei District Court for deliberation in the Tianchu attack accompanied by six members of the Bamboo Alliance. Around 10am during a recess, Wang Yu met with a Flying Eagles Gang member (who were acting as intermediaries) in the hallway, hoping the actor would dissolve the matter privately. Instead, the conversation escalated into violence and bloodshed inside the courthouse. Wang and the Bamboo gangsters were arrested immediately. Later, Wang once more faced prison time for abetting attempted murder, but got his sentence of two years reduced to eight months before finally being acquitted for lack of evidence.

His connections came in handy, though, when director Lo Wei took out a contract on Jackie Chan in 1979. Chan's movies for Lo Wei labeled him box office poison till the frustrated director loaned him out to Seasonal, an independent company. Chan's SNAKE IN THE EAGLE'S SHADOW (1978) became a surprise hit; and its follow-up, DRUNKEN MASTER (1978), an even more massive sensation. With Golden Harvest offering Chan $1 million to make movies for them, the Shaw's making offers of their own, and Chan desiring to set up his own indy company, he didn't wish to work for Lo Wei anymore; but a now angered Lo had lost face and took out a hit on the new megastar. Wang Yu intervened and kept Chan from harm; requiring Chan repay this debt by appearing in a few Wang Yu productions afterward. Such was the wild world of HK cinema in those days.

Jimmy Wang Yu is famous for several titles on his resume. In America, more times than not, when Wang's name comes up, MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976) is the title fans associate with the superstar.

As for Chen Kuan Tai, both he and Wang followed similar trajectories in their careers with Shaw Brothers; only Chen's ended differently.

In the second and final chapter (click HERE), we look at the tumultuous history involved in the making of THE FLYING GUILLOTINE PART 2; Chen Kuan Tai's equally trouble-filled period between 1976-1978; the making of THE VENGEFUL BEAUTY (1978); a look at Chen Ping's career at that time; and the numerous Guillotine imitations and films featuring similar weapons.


AntiHero said...

Great article! I could see a book of these essays on my coffee table one day.

venoms5 said...

Thank you. Part 2 is actually a little bigger than this one. A few years ago I had intended on writing a two-volume set on Chang Cheh, and a potential series on lesser known, but important HK directors; but abandoned the idea.

Xu Nuo Xiang said...

I second the wish of your writing a book about Shaw Brothers. These were fantastic.

venoms5 said...

Thank you, Xu Nuo Xiang for the kind words. I am glad you enjoyed them. It was great fun putting them together.

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