Thursday, June 6, 2013

Flying Guillotine, The (1975)

Wow. Another terrible cover.
Director: Meng Hua Ho
Notable Cast: Kuan Tai Chen, Keng Fu, Wu Chi Liu, Hung Wei

It took a while for Dragon Dynasty to finally release this 70s kung fu cult classic and when they did, Blood Brothers was all over getting our hands on a copy. The word of mouth was that "The Flying Guillotine" was an instantly memorable and sharp Shaw Brothers film (no pun intended) that rose above the gimmick of its titular weapon. All of this is true, "The Flying Guillotine" is a strong balance of story, character, and action and one that easily overcomes the pitfalls of its concept.

Ma Teng (Kuan Tai Chen) was one of twelve men secretly chosen for their strong abilities and loyalty to the Emperor to be part of a new secret assassination program. The men will be taught to use a brand new weapon called the Flying Guillotine, a bladed throwing weapon with the ability to behead the target from a long distance. When Ma Teng realizes that there is a bit of corruption in the ranks and that their targets are leaders of their own country, he decides to flee from the group incurring their wrath.

Come at me, bro.
Believe it or not, the flying guillotine is not the highlight of this film. I know, for a kung fu film centered around assassins trained with this semi-mythical weapon (there is little historical fact that validates how this weapon worked or what it was even used for) you would think that the sequences featuring the bladed Frisbee of decapitation would be the highlights. While these moments are fun and definitely very unique, including how director Meng Hua Ho uses super clever editing and zooms to make the physics of the weapon seem feasible, it's the story and characters that truly highlight the film.

"I don't know how if fucking works either!"

What makes "The Flying Guillotine" work is the character arc for Ma Teng. Kuan Tai Chen is impressively strong in the lead here, validating his very long career in Hong Kong cinema, and despite the obvious lack of thoughtful villain (yes, his motivation is jealousy that bleeds into power!) Kuan Tai Chen carries this film almost single-handedly. While the random time jumps that Shaw studios love to brush over still irritates, his growth from a fully loyal servant to a rebel to a family man in the third act is fascinating to watch. By the time that his fellow Guillotiners (I'm making up words now, people) show up to threaten his family, you want him to burn the whole damn program to the ground. I was ready to do it for him too. That's how strongly the story and characters had me invested.

As for action, it's hard to discredit any Shaw Brothers film here. Interestingly enough, the action and martial arts tend to be less of a focus in the film. While you do get a few hand to hand combat sequences which are fun, the film focuses on a more thriller style of action - a game of cat and mouse if you will. The use of the titular weapon tends to be surrounded by tension and atmosphere rather than excitement and adrenaline (until the finale on the rocky cliffs of a waterfall) and it comes off as more effective for the story that way. I was also impressed with the heightened sense of violence around the weapon and it makes it even scarier in feeling so that when it's used it has a stronger effect on the audience. Decapitated bodies spasm in blood puddles on the ground, a villain gets the bladed side of the guillotine to the face, and at one point they even decapitate a rather unintentionally hilarious moment. It works here though.

For both kung fu fanatics and for fans of cult cinema, "The Flying Guillotine" is a must see. It's got a great story, focused characters, and a wicked aura for the title weapon when it shows up on screen. This has easily leaped up the list of my favorite Shaw Brothers films and I highly suggest it to anyone curious about the pop culture weapon and the film that started it all.

Written By Matt Reifschneider


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  2. Seriously who voted with 'disagree box'?! I can't see how anyone that's a martial arts fan would not like this film!

    1. Haha. Hey, people tend to love "Executioners From Shaolin" and I really couldn't stand that one outside of its strong choreography. I'm curious to see what people say when I post my review for the second one later this week :D