This loopy, agreeably frantic Taiwanese chopsocky thriller was a big American grindhouse hit in 1977. After a brief vengeance setup it's literally one marital arts combat fight after another, yet it never becomes dull or repetitive. Considered lost, the original Mandarin-language version was rediscovered by Pathfinder's Gregory Hatanaka in 2002. Pathfinder's 2-disc set contains both the 93 minute original feature and the 90 minute English language version.
At first blush, Master of the Flying Guillotine sounds like a ridiculous gimmick film; the villain Wu Chi is a blind man who locates his prey by wiggling his ears, Zatoichi-style. Then he tosses a little spinning beret-like disc that has sawblades inside and out and a little cage-like sack that drops over the victim's head. Wu Chi manipulates the device on the end of a long chain, when he whips it back, it brings the victim's decapitated head with it.
What makes the film work is a fun attitude, lots of colorful, easy-to-differentiate fighting characters and a sprightly pace. The real star of the show is Jimmy Wang Yu, a handsome Hong Kong action hero who left the Shaw brothers and wrote and directed this movie in Taiwan; he played his One-Armed Boxer (OAB) character more than once before. The OAB runs a school of enthusiastic students, and shows them how to walk on walls and leap over buildings - it's just a trick of holding one's breath properly!
Wang Yu is merely an observer for the film's middle section, which uses at least 35 minutes to show a long string of bloody kung-fu matches at an Enter the Dragon - like competition. It's a primer for Hong Kong stock characters. The old competition master has a beautiful daughter (Lung Fong) who is a Tiger Fists expert. A Thai Boxer (Tsim Po Sham) has callouses up his shins, spits and fights dirty. Win-Without-a-Knife Yakuma (Lung Wang, a Jimmy Wang Yu regular) actually does use a knife in a sneaky maneuver. There's an amusing Monkey Boxer (gotta have comic relief) and a magical Indian Yoga Master (Wing Sheng Wang) who has arms that extend to twice their length during combat. Honest.
Master of the Flying Guillotine uses wire work long before the wires could be painted out; Wu Chi leaps out of a building and several of the other fighters jump into the arena, etc. There are plenty of 'magical' events like a combatant that can walk on sword points, and the low-tech special effects (mostly judicious cutting) lets us suspend our disbelief. Jimmy Wang Yu is a good director - there aren't any really interesting settings but the action is always fresh. The gimmick with the fellow with the stretching arms is really well done.
This is the era where the sound effects were ridiculously overdone, with each arm movement of a kung-fu form resulting in a noise akin to a rifle shot. The same ten sound effects must be repeated 500 times each (I can see the audio reproducers cranking them out in loops for cutting) and they're an important part of the feel of the genre.
My sons, both black belts in different martial arts and casual chopsocky fans, loved the film and immediately picked up on its catchy soundtrack, a percussive underscore that they say was used or recreated for parts of Kill Bill. The movie is a little gory at times but never obsessively so, and stays within a spirit of action fun without taking itself too seriously.
Pathfinder's double-disc DVD of Master of the Flying Guillotine is quite a labor of love. The enhanced widescreen image is mostly good, except for several scenes where the density and color fluctuates wildly, indicating negative damage. The picture also shows a lot of wear but is intact. Color values aren't great but look far better than the pan-scan tapes previously available.
Among the extras are three trailers, two interviews with director-star Jimmy Wang Yu (one at a 2002 Japanese re-premiere) and a lively audio commentary with Andy Klein, Wade Major and Alex Luu. There's also an elaborate insert booklet and text bios. The only sub-par extra is a 'still gallery' composed of images taken from the film itself.
Savant is no Asian films expert. One of the disc set's insert essays details the history of Hong Kong pictures with similar guillotine devices but doesn't mention one I remember seeing a trailer for in the middle 70s. Its white-haired expert wields some windmill-like spinning blades on the ends of (or attached to?) a pole or pair of poles. It looked as though anyone trying to use it would immediately cut his own head off! This film's flying guillotine is not quite as goofy, but is still as humorous a decapitation device as ever was on screen. Quick, think of three! (I can't.)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Master of the Flying Guillotine rates: