The Flying Guillotine (1975) Blu Ray (88 Films)
A ruthless emperor
This Shaw Brothers production is set during the 17th century Manchu reign of China. Emperor Yung Cheng (Yang Chiang) is told by two of his advisors that the people aren’t happy with his rule. Since he doesn’t tolerate any dissent, he orders his enforcer Xin Kang (Feng Ku) to have them stealthily assassinated.
For this purpose, Xin creates a flying weapon which can be used to decapitate targets. He assembles 12 men and, under the watchful eye of the Emperor, trains them to use it. When the training is complete he assembles the four best to take out the two dignitaries, a task which they perform with great success.
However, after their mission is done two of them - Ma Teng (Kuan Tai Chen) and Xie Tianfu (Yue Wong) - start to question the morality of why they are killing these people. When the Emperor continues using the assassins to decapitate more political opponents, Xie cracks up and tells the others that he can’t continue. One of their group named Xu Shuangkun (Hung Wei) is spying on the others on behalf of the Emperor and reports Xie’s disobedience back to him. As a result, Xie and his wife are made the next targets, with Xu and Xin carrying out the attack.
When Ma finds out that his friend is killed, he decides to quit and goes on the run. However, the Emperor doesn’t tolerate his treachery any more than anyone else’s, so he sends the other assassins out after him.
Watch a trailer:
Lesser Shaw Brothers
The Flying Guillotine is one of the better-known productions to come out of the Kong Kong-based Shaw Brothers studio. It was a big hit and went on to spawn several sequels (a couple of which were unofficial). Like many of their other Wuxia flicks it features plenty of elaborately-choreographed fights, some crude but over-the-top gore, horrendously tinny post-production dubbing and sumptuous period production design (albeit much of it involving props and sound stages which would be used over and over again by the studio through the years).
In terms of its plot arc and themes, The Flying Guillotine in many ways prefigures the excellent Killer Constable (1980), a later production from the studio, again starring Kuan Tai Chen. In both films, the lead protagonist has to weigh up loyalty to higher orders against the morality of his actions. In both, a female character introduced later in the story is instrumental in the same character discovering that there’s more to life than killing others for authority. However, while Killer Constable is my personal favourite of all of the Shaw Brothers productions I have seen (most of them, funnily enough, amongst the recent 88 Films Asia Collection releases), The Flying Guillotine has to be the weakest of them.
While it’s still fine entertainment, there are a few issues which drag it down. For one thing, there are a large number of kills in the film involving the titular device, most of which are shot in the same way. They start out with a shot of the flying contraption (an effect involving wire work), then cut into a shot of it being used to pull the head off an obvious dummy, then culminate in a shot of the actor (his head out of frame) covered in fake blood and jerking about for a few seconds before giving up the ghost. This cheesy FX sequence is amusing to watch once or twice, but when it’s restaged about a dozen times it becomes repetitive and lays bare how simplistic the execution is.
The poor editing and continuity are also pretty glaring. On numerous occasions, we cut between ill-matched shots, for example going from bright daylight into a split-second insert that’s clearly taking place either in night time or a dark environment, and then back into daylight. Later on, Ma encounters a street performer named Yu Ping (played by Wu Chi Liu) who takes him into hiding. Years pass, during which they become married and have a child. However, while this is obvious from what is occurring in each scene (in one, Yu is giving birth and in another, the child is a toddler) no sense of time passing has been imbued (e.g. by title cards or montage) so it just looks awkward. On another level, the relationship between Ma and Yu is awkwardly-inserted as it drags down the pace of what’s ultimately an action-orientated affair. It’s out of step with the “in the moment” nature of the rest of the film.
Not all bad
Aside from these elements, however, the action and story are pretty good. There’s more of an epic sweep and more character development than in many of the later Shaw Brothers productions. There are also several memorable moments including some spectacular long shots which really help to convey the vast scale of the outdoor sets, while some of the ways in which assailants are dispatched that don’t involve the flying guillotine are rather cool; witness the “death by slow-motion shop awning collapse” and “death by metal umbrella frame”.
All in all, The Flying Guillotine is worthwhile for fans of the Shaw Brothers’ films, but the uninitiated would be better off starting elsewhere.
Runtime: 111 mins
Dir: Meng Hua Ho
Script: Kuang Ni
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Feng Ku, Yang Chiang, Hung Wei, Wu Chi Liu, Ti Ai, Wei Tu Lin, Yue Wong
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The usual routine with 88 Films’ presentations of Shaw Brothers productions: the visual restorations are bright, colourful and filled with lavish detail. However, the sound is very tinny and metallic - although it’s arguable that the poor audio of the original source is at least partially to blame. Both English and Chinese audio tracks are available.
Another enjoyable and well-researched essay courtesy of Calum Waddell. He discusses how the film effectively instigated its own sub-genre: that of the Wuxia slasher, which was in turn influenced by Kenji Misumi’s gore-splattered Baby Cart series from Japan. He investigates the film’s reflections of Hong Kong’s political climate of the time, as its depictions of the totalitarian Manchu reign reflected the Maoist era in mainland China, which was knocking at the colony’s doorstep due to the turmoil instigated by the anti-British leftist riots of 1967.
He then goes on to discuss how the film was part of a burgeoning Hong Kong cinema of the 1970s that was so successful in Taiwan that it was starting to cause their own Wuxia film industry to wane. Their industry responded by making an unofficial sequel in 1976 called Master of the Flying Guillotine - which, in turn, led to some more sequels (official and unofficial) to be made in Hong Kong. As a parting shot, Calum asks us, his readers, to point us in the direction of whoever owns the rights to it. If only I knew…
Unfortunately, that’s it as far as extras are concerned. There’s not even the usual Bey Logan commentary.
It’s not exactly the best Shaw Brothers production but it’s still enjoyable. It’s a pity about the shortage of extras, as worthwhile as the Waddell essay is.