Master of the Flying Guillotine (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1976)

IT’S A MEAN MACHINE – CUTS YOUR HEAD OFF CLEAN!

This classic martial arts death match pits two wuxia icons against each other – the famed One-Armed Boxer (Hong Kong superstar Jimmy Wang Yu) versus a blind assassin (veteran character actor Kam Kong) and his legendary Flying Guillotine. Set in 1730, during the early part of the Ching dynasty, ethnic Chinese Hans formed bands of rebels to fight their Manchurian oppressors. After the One-Armed Boxer, a stoic kung fu expert and Han revolutionary, disposes of two would-be assassins, their master, a formidable blind emissary of the Ching posing as a Buddhist monk, swears revenge, searching out every one-armed martial artist and snatching their heads with his tethered decapitation device called the Flying Guillotine.

Arguably the most famous Hong Kong martial arts film of the post-Bruce Lee, pre-Jackie Chan period, this independently-produced classic is more popular than ever, with a legacy extending to films like Kill Bill and video games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. With its wild, fantasy face-offs and its cosmic Krautrock soundtrack, Master of the Flying Guillotine is undoubtedly a film worthy of losing your head over!

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Mandarin version and English dub track (uncompressed on the Blu-ray Disc)
  • New optional English subtitle translation
  • Audio commentary with film critics Andy Klein, Wade Major, and Alex Luu
  • Interviews with star/director Jimmy Wang Yu
  • Spinning Vengeance – director Quentin Tarantino on Master of the Flying Guillotine
  • Design for Decapitation – Grant Imahara on the mechanics of the Flying Guillotine
  • Trailers
  • Reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Craig Lines

In cuisine, a successful dish depends on the layering and balance of flavours. In Chinese cuisine, the combination of sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and spice has even greater significance as these flavours do not merely ensure a delectable dish, but also promotes physical and spiritual health. Jimmy Wang Yu’s Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) focuses decidedly on the martial arts, not the culinary arts, but it is nevertheless a memorably wild concoction even by the strange standards of wuxia. In suggesting it for an Arrow Video release, MMC! examines the eccentric mix that makes Master of the Flying Guillotine a favourite to kung fu connoisseurs and casual dilettantes alike.

Master of the Flying Guillotine is set in 1730, following the conquest of the Han’s lengthy Ming Dynasty by the Manchu’s Ching Dynasty and while Manchu authorities looked to suppress rebellious Han loyalists. Assisting the Manchu is Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), faux Buddhist monk and blind master of the Flying Guillotine (a kind of pocket umbrella on a chain that expands into a beekeeper’s helmet and tears its victims’ heads off). When the titular Master discovers that his two disciples (posing as Tibetan Llamas) have been killed by a Han rebel – the One-Armed Boxer, Tien Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu) – he vows revenge and sets his sights on a martial arts tournament held by the Eagle Claw martial arts school that is likely to attract the OAB.

Salt – Considered necessary to avoid stagnation and aid in detoxification, salt is believed to work on the subject’s kidneys where one’s essence is held.

Few would consider any deep readings to Wang Yu’s eccentric film, but personal and political parallels can be drawn between the repressive and vengeful actions of the Manchu on the Han and the context of Master‘s release. Jimmy Wang Yu had become a star for the Shaw Brothers Studio with his film The Chinese Boxer (1970), but he broke contract with the studio and ended up banned from making movies in Hong Kong after a heated legal battle. Wang Yu replaced Shaw Brothers with Golden Harvest, making Master and other films from apparent exile in Taiwan. The flight of a Chinese star from Hong Kong to Taiwan, a historic destination for fleeing Nationalist Chinese, offers a kind of historical repetition in personal terms, something made even more poignant by police corruption scandals that would define Hong Kong for much of the 1970s and put Wang Yu’s historic subject matter in further perspective. As such, Master of Flying Guillotine offers something inherently cultural and reflexively current in its fantastic vision of history, mythologizing the past and re-writing its ills.

Care, of course, should be taken in making a sympathetic figure of Jimmy Wang Yu as a banished artist escaping a domineering empire and a corrupt state. MMC! has already discussed Wang Yu’s terrible behaviour during the making of The Man From Hong Kong (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1975) but has left out his public brawls, his 1969 affair with a married actress that resulted in her husband hanging himself, the repeated accusations by various wives of spousal abuse (and his defence in one instance of it arising from his wife’s lesbian affair), of his publicly exposing his second wife’s affair by ambushing her and her lover with reporters and police in tow, and the murder charges against him that were eventually dropped for lack of evidence. Look him up – Jimmy’s a charmer.

Spice – Heat (as in spiciness, not temperature) encourages sweating and circulation, and is associated with the lungs which act as the body’s first line of defence against infection and disease.

The place of Master of the Flying Guillotine and its titular weapon in cinema history is a confusing one. Master is a sequel to Jimmy Wang Yu’s One-Armed Boxer (1975), where the OAB did battle with the evil Hook Gang and then a series of mercenary martial artists (retconned in Master as disciples of Fung Sheng). The same year, Shaw Brothers released Meng Hua Ho’s The Flying Guillotine (1975) where a dozen guillotine masters serve as a hit squad to a cruel Emperor until one of their number reconsiders his lot. Wang Yu’s Master ended up beating Shaw Brothers in the race to a flying guillotine sequel due to turnover with actors and directors on the Shaw project. In fact, Wang Yu would beat Shaw Brothers to the punch twice by releasing a further prequel, Fatal Flying Guillotine (1977), before the Shaws could finally get their Flying Guillotine 2: Palace Carnage (Kang Cheng and Shan Hua, 1978) and Vengeful Beauty (Meng Hua Ho, 1978) into theatres probably too late to develop into a bona fide franchise. The Flying Guillotine craze lasted four years and four films (five if you tie One-Armed Boxer into that knot) and then fell from martial art stardom. In this brief, spinning flurry of bloody extravagance remains Master of the Flying Guillotine, the apogee of this unwieldy weapon’s cinematic glory.

Sour – Easing digestion by calming and drying the body, sour flavours ensure liver health.

Historical parallels and cinematic contexts notwithstanding, Master of the Flying Guillotine succeeds mainly through its minimal plotting – Fung Sheng wants Tien Lung dead; Tien Lung must defend himself from various killers dispatched by Fung Sheng. Master offers a series single-serving conflicts most conspicuously represented in an outlandish martial arts tournament that marks the first half of the film and offers a dim sum brunch of sword-fighters, blade-walkers, massive Mongolians, scratching female warriors, monkey-style fighters, three-section staffers, and many more. In the latter half of Master, the OAB vanquishes various henchmen of Fung Sheng, devising plots to succeed over a duplicitous Japanese fighter, an owl-throwing, limb-extending yoga master, and a pugnacious Thai boxer (undone in a particularly one-sided and unsportsmanlike manner). The fight choreography of Chia Yung Liu and Chia-Liang Liu provides an exotic array of characters and techniques that leads to the ultimate confrontation(s) between the Master and the OAB. Fun, fantastic, and full of fights, Master of the Flying Guillotine prefers uncomplicated conflict over complex characters and achieves boss-fight satisfaction as a result.

Sweet – Promoting spleen health, sweetness improves mood, moves digestion, and harmonizes the body.

Whether it’s the silliness of stretchy arms or the wild violence of serrated beheadings, Master of the Flying Guillotine is defined by its excess. Wang Yu creates a mountain of jaw-dropping confections that bewilder and delight. Fung Sheng’s wispy eyebrows, twitching ears, and hair-trigger death strikes contrast with Tien Lung’s ceiling-walking and negative charisma. Their final confrontation is an intricate plot of bamboo poles, chirping birds, and coffin lids aimed at disorienting the sightless master and defanging his weapon. In between is a delirious parade of B-movie wonders – firebombs, a fatal deflation, a weaponized ponytail, a Japanese fighter named “Win Without a Knife” who wins with a knife, more firebombs, an apparent abundance of one-armed men waiting to mistakenly have their heads yanked off, and multiple instances of “brown-face,” to name just a few. In Master of the Flying Guillotine, even the filler is killer.

Bitter – Bitterness clears the heart, strengthens the stomach, and cools the body.

It is the most dissonant element of Wang Yu’s film that ultimately proves to be its crown jewel – its unlicensed Krautrock soundtrack! Master freely and frequently employs Neu!’s “Super” from Neu! 2, Tangerine Dream’s “Rubycon, Part One” from Rubycon, and Kraftwerk’s “Mitternacht,” “Morgenspaziergang,” and “Kometenmelodie 2” from Autobahn with heavy, experimental flair, but it is the use of Neu!’s “Super 16” for Fung Sheng’s theme that captivates above all. Its brooding, clanging, slo-mo dread calls out for the arrival of a big bad from beyond the grave or from beneath the ocean floor. For all the silly extravagance of Master of the Flying Guillotine, “Super 16” is a unique and indelible declaration of the kung fu badassery around which the rest of the film revolves. Other films can only dream of moments as cool.

Arrow Video’s Asian titles have focused on Japanese cinema but MMC! is hopeful that Chinese and Taiwanese movies might one day join the cult label’s library as well, and with Arrow Video’s confederate label 88 Films having already released a selection of Chinese cult classics, we’re hopeful that these movies might be within reach. Master of Flying Guillotine is a singularly riotous example of the wuxia film but its restoration is now 15 years old and the Pathfinder double-DVD edition now appears out of print, leaving only a single-disc DVD version on the market. Surely it’s time for an improved edition of Master to reach cult film fans, one with a high definition transfer and updated special features reflecting the increased profile of the film in movie culture. As hard media’s preeminent cult film label, Arrow Video is overdue in releasing a kung fu or wuxia title and we can think of no kill crazy rampage more deserving of a first approach than Jimmy Wang Yu’s Master of the Flying Guillotine.

Credits: The Mandarin and English versions, the audio commentary, the star/director interviews, and the trailers are all holdovers from the Pathfinder double-disc package, while our cover summary is inspired by the same edition. To that we’ve added an interview with Quentin Tarantino given Master being a personal favourite of his and “Super 16” being sampled frequently throughout Kill Bill. We’ve also added an interview with power-nerd Grant Imahara discussing the mechanics of a flying guillotine. Imahara is a fan of kung fu cinema and successfully built a Flying Guillotine for Mythbusters, so we thought a discussion with him could be fun. Craig Lines is a prolific writer on film, an avowed fan of the Flying Guillotine, and an experienced DVD booklet contributor, and so we chose him an our imaginary essay writer.

This post owes much thanks to Nathan Rabin’s review for the AV Club, Kyle Anderson’s review at Nerdist, Sascha Matuszak’s piece for Fightland, Elizabeth Kerr’s “Filmart” essay, Vern’s “Super-Kumite” essay, and Geoff Klock’s consideration of Master of the Flying Guillotine in the context of Quentin Tarantino. Lastly, a shout-out to Ericca Long and Cole Roulain and their discussion of Master in Episode 39 of their podcastThe Magic Lantern. It’s hard to believe that Ericca and Cole are approaching episode 50 of The Magic Lantern – well done you crazy kids!

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