Friday, April 22, 2011

Blind Vengeance Takes Center Stage in "Master of the Flying Guillotine"

Vengeance! That's what blind kung fu teacher Fu Sing Wu Chi has in mind when he receives news that two of his pupils were killed by a one-armed revoluntionary. Fu Sing Wu Chi promptly blows up his remote cabin in the mountains and sets out--armed with his "flying guillotine"--to kill his adversary.

Liu Ti Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu), the "one-armed boxer," heads a martial arts school where he tries to keep a low profile ("Don't attract attention from government officials," he warns his students). In the same village, a bigwig is hosting a large-scale martial arts tournament. Liu Ti Lung refuses to enter the tournament, but decides that his students could learn from watching the participants.

A tournament participant readies for
her first blow.
After several exciting fighting matches (all to the death--unfortunately for the losers), Fu Sing Wu Chi shows up. He kills the tournament's host and, with the help of some of the fighters, seeks out Liu Ti Lung to gain his vengance.

No plot summary could do justice to Master of the Flying Guillotine, one of the funkiest and most popular films to emerge from the kung fu craze of the 1970s. Released in 1976, the film just missed out on the kung fu fad in America. Over the years, though, American fans have elevated it from cult status to the point where it has been championed by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino.

Part of the film's appeal comes from the tournament scenes, which pit fighters from different martial arts disciplines against each other. Indeed, Master of the Flying Guillotine is known as the protoype "tournament film," although it wasn't the first of its kind. In fact, director-star Jimmy Wang Yu actually borrowed the concept from his earlier One-Armed Boxer (aka The Chinese Professionals), which--although it didn't feature a tournament per se--boasted a plethora of martial artists from different counties and with different fighting styles.

Fighters perched on poles...with
blades protruding from the ground.
That said, the tournament matches in Master of the Flying Guillotine are superior in every way. Not only are they more imaginative (e.g., two fighters perched on top of poles as they battle each other), but the direction and presentation are more stylish. I even like how a paper fan is ripped in half (with musical accompaniment) when a winner is announcement. And, there's some offbeat humor, too, such as when two fighters kill each other and an official directs the tournament staff to "take the two winners away."

Wang Yu narrowly avoids death
by flying guillotine.
Of course, Master of the Flying Guillotine is more than just a filmed tourament...and that leads us to Fu Sing Wu Chi and his flying guillotine--a unique, lethal, but not very practical weapon. It can be best described as a hat attached to a chain that drops a mesh over the head of its victims There are razor-sharp blades at the bottom of the mesh, so when the chain is pulled tight, the victim is beheaded. Since Fu Sing Wu Chi is blind, he uses his flying guillotine on any one-armed fighter he encounters. This is bad news for a bum at a restaurant who poses as Liu Ti Lung in order to get a free meal!

There are subplots aplenty in Master of the Flying Guillotine, but my favorite involves a female martial artist whose father (the tournament host) is murdered by Fu Sing Wu Chi. A Japanese teacher offers to take care of her and teach her karate. However, she rejects his offer, stating: "All I want to do now to take revenge on that blind man." The Japanese teacher's terse response: "Don't're not enough."

Wang Yu plots his next move during
the fight in the coffin shop.
The film's only glaring liability is Jimmy Wang Yu. Although his direction is stylish and his choice of settings creative (e.g., a fight in a coffin shop), his acting is uninspired. He simply lacks charisma and, although it's fun to watch his one-armed fighting for awhile, his repetitive movements eventually become boring. Still, there's no denying that--as a director and actor--he was a major influence on the kung fu films of the 1970s.

For anyone interested in martial arts films, Master of the Flying Guillotine is required viewing. For those curious to explore the genre beyond the films of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, this funky, stylish picture is a great place to start.


  1. A superb and always recommended classic! The flying guillotine is indeed not practical, but it's one of the most memorable weapons and evidently quite deadly in the right hands. I agree that Jimmy Wang Yu is not the best actor. Though he's an appealing lead, he was, as you said, flat and a little bland. But Wang Yu was an undeniably talented and energetic director. He was great at handling multiple characters, whether tournament-style like GUILLOTINE or crowds of feuding warriors like BEACH OF THE WAR-GODS. I likewise agree that MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is superior to ONE-ARMED BOXER (GUILLOTINE was also called ONE-ARMED BOXER 2 and THE ONE-ARMED BOXER VS. THE FLYING GUILLOTINE). This was a supremely entertaining read, Rick!

  2. This was a lot of fun to read and I loved the photos, especially the top one which beautifully showcases talented direction. "The Master of the Flying Guillotine" is very entertaining and your review is top notch, Rick!

  3. One of the definitive old school kung fu movies. Too bad Gordon Liu wasn't the star or another martial artist of his caliber. Wang Yu really is dull, but the movie is still awesome.

  4. Rick, I have seen bits and pieces of this over the years. We used to have Kung Fu Saturdays, and I watched a number of tournament films just like this. The flying guillotine wasn't the most inspired weapon was it? Enjoyed reading your review.

  5. totally bizarre film...sometimes incomprehensible...but enjoyable...thanx Rick!!

  6. I had to laugh at Liu Ti Lung's advice to students "Don't attract attention from government officials." Words of wisdom for any country in any era! Very enjoyable read, Rick. The movie seems to have just about everything! I'm going to look for it (Netflix, don't let me down)!