When he gets the news of his students death at the hand of a famed one-armed anti-Ching fighter (Jimmy Wang Yu), the blind master (Kam Kong) swears revenge and, flying guillotine in hand, sets out to find this one-armed boxer. Meanwhile, the head of the powerful Eagle Claw school arranges a martial arts tournament with the hope of drawing out this anti-Ching fighter. The one-armed boxer attends the tournament, to observe not fight, and soon has to deal with assassins sent after him, including a Japanese fighter, an Indian yoga fighter, a Thai kickboxer, and the titular, revenge seeking, blind master of the flying guillotine.
The best way I can describe why Master of The Flying Guillotine (1975 aka. One-Armed Boxer 2, One-Armed Boxer Vs the Flying Guillotine) is a classic and a film I've always immensely enjoyed is that for a good many years I was a smoker. Like the warm tickling rush of nicotine to a pair of lungs, Master of The Flying Guillotine is a complete guilty pleasure that leaves you feeling high off its empty b-movie fun. I love a good emotionally and intellectually stimulating movie, but there are times when Cries and Whispers just won't click. When it is 1AM, you are with a group of wiseass friends, and the time is ripe for a 70's action crowd pleaser, Master of The Flying Guillotine fits the bill perfectly.
Star and director Jimmy Wang Yu was arguably the first big HK international action film star. His career would see its rise during the late 60's Shaw Bros. reign and the actual inception of what would become known as kung fu films. By the time Master of The Flying Guillotine came around, Wang Yu was a completely independent star, no longer burdened as a contract player, and it was during this time that he saw his second wave of popularity in the post-Bruce Lee world of martial films being spread internationally (according to many reports, he eclipsed Lee's popularity in Europe but thats probably just due to sheer volume and Lee's death).
Guillotine's threadbare plot is just there to serve the action, which is outlandish and plentiful, including a twenty minute stretch of tournament fighting implementing everything from poles, long spears, three-sectioned staff, knives, rope, swords, kickboxing, monkey, eagle claw, iron body, snake, and mantis style kung fu, as well as fighting on posts over a pit of blades. Wang Yu constructed the film to take advantage of his usual popular one-armed fighter character (a characterization based on Chinese martial legends), setting up the film as a semi-sequel to his film The Chinese Professionals (aka. The One-Armed Boxer).
Wang Yu may have been a fairly wooden actor and a non-martial artist but the man knew how to entertain. Wang Yu was a champion swimmer before he was a martial film star, and as a martial artist he always looked like,...well, a swimmer. But, in his best films, the guy had charisma. He could deliver entertainment and be cool despite his lack of actual martial skills. One of the great things about Wang Yu making up for that lack of martial background is evident here. While most stars like Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu, and the like would be defeated by their enemy, then go learn some new style and return to defeat the bad guy, Wang Yu often didn't bother with all that. The Master Killer may need to spend an entire film in the disciplined halls of Shaolin enduring harsh training, but Wang Yu would just booby trap a place, lure the villain there, and cheat his way to victory. Why go study for months and years under some mean spirited drunken master when you can just lock the barefoot enemy in a hotbox, have some buddies with spears stand guard outside, wear some sensible shoes to protect your feet, fight the guy, and effectively cook the poor villain? It breaks the noble rules of most martial films, but in reality its pretty smart and cinematically it sets up an interesting gimmick for a finale and is why Wang Yu films like Guillotine and Return of the Chinese Boxer have such memorable endings.
Despite his being behind and in front of the camera, Guillotine isn't a Wang Yu vanity film. For half the film he doesn't lay a hand (pun intended) on anyone and doesn't take part in the films longest fight sequence, the tournament. The film moves briskly and despite some low budget trappings and a thin plot, it is highly enjoyable. Sure, we clearly see that Northern Devil Lee San is wearing athletic tube socks, but he still wins us over by poking his Iron Skin opponents eyes out. The film is made up of such moments, like when the Master of the Flying G waltzes into a restaurant and kills some poor bum pretending to be the One-Armed Boxer. It is priceless and capped off by his dry response to the shocked patrons who just witnessed the beheading of a pissing himself with fear, clearly innocent man, "I don't care who he was. I intend to kill every one-armed man I come across." Its all without pretense, just stunts and action, wall-to-wall juvenile entertainment.
The DVD: Pathfinder Pictures
Now we come to the restoration. This print is the full cut, a little over ten minutes longer than the International cut that most non-Asian/non-HK audiences saw. I've seen the old International cut theatrically as well as at least 10-15 times on video. Based on memory, the changes are as follows--- Extended training scene after the basket walking where Wang Yu further demonstrates his skill by walking up the wall and on the ceiling of the school--- Extended scene in the Eagle Claw school between the master and his daughter, who inquires about the One-Armed Boxer possibly appearing at the tournament. She mentions how she would like to fight him, but her father warns against this and tells her she isn't skilled enough and shouldn't enter the tournament.--- Extra fight scene during the tournament.--- When the Master of the Flying Guillotine crashes the tournament, extended scene shows his exit by throwing explosives at the crowd.--- Slightly extended scene when Wang Yu explains the Master of the Flying Guillotine's vendetta against him and why the students must scatter.--- A bit added (not much more than a line) between Yamamoto and the Eagle Claw daughter after the tournament--- While in hiding, the One-Armed Boxer meets up with his students and the daughter. Original Cut goes straight to coffin shop. Now we get an added scene where he observes a woodsman trying to cut bamboo with an ax, thus he gets the idea of how to defeat the flying guillotine.--- Before his fight with Yamamoto and the Master, Wang Yu tells the daughter she will be a distraction and should leave with his students. Yamamoto poses a little bit more before their fight... Now, having been a fan of the original cut, the differences are relatively minor, the new bits do add to the story and are neat, but I fell in love with the brisk cut and would still like a good DVD of it.
Picture: Visuals boil down to a very basic Letterbox image. In terms of "restoration" there doesn't appear to be too much clean up, that is, it is not a restorative effort on par with say, Criterion of Hong Kong Legends, but it is a much cleaner print than previously available. It is marred by washed out color, color hue mismatching, some spots and dirt, brightness flicker or fluctuation, that kind of age wear expected with older kung fu. Only those who didn't see the original International Print on video or during its mid 90's theatrical revival run, like I have, will moan over the quality. Trust me, I popped in my old squeezed semi-widescreen vhs and you wouldn't believe the difference. Based on my inquiries a few years ago, aside from the entire film swimming in dirt and lines, the old Intl. prints were actually damaged, apparently all of them had a first reel that was burned in the middle, softening, blurring, washing out the center of the picture. It is still not perfect, but this new print is a vast improvement and shows a glimmer of hope that this ill-treated genre has some chance of being salvaged and preserved.
Sound: Two audio options include Mandarin or English mono tracks with optional yellow English or Spanish subtitles. Both tracks have a fair amount of age wear and the usual dub muffle, but overall they are quite strong and clear, especially the original Mandarin track. While the English dub has its charm, after all its how 99% of the original kung fu fans were exposed to the films, it is nice to have the original Chinese language track and the slight change that the subs presents. The soundtrack, largely lifted from German industrial pioneers NEU! , has one of the best bad guy themes ever (it sounds like someone playing a Black Sabbath record at the wrong, slowed, RPM).
It should be noted that the English track is incomplete and it default switches to the Mandarin track with subs during a few scenes. Unlike the Columbia debacle with Drunken Master, which did the same, odds are there never was an English dub of these scenes, the film was probably only dubbed after it was cut for the international print, so no dub source could be found.
Extras: The extras include, Trailers (Original Chinese Export, US Theatrical Release, and US Theatrical Restored), Text Bios for Wang Yu (plus filmography) and Lui Chia Liang, Still Gallery (12 stills including various posters), Production Credits, and Audio Commentary by film critics Wade Major (Box Office Magazine) and Andy Klien (The New Times, Los Angles). They talk about the usual Wang Yu bio stuff and other easily found info fans of kung fu cinema will undoubtedly already know. Both seem to be ignorant of what was on the international cut and its somewhat unclear if they even saw the film before this restoration. It's a tad disconcerting when others could have provided the same background info (without the innacuracies), the kung fu film knowledge, and have the added incentive of being a fan of the film in its previous incarnation and be able to assuredly point out the differences in this new cut. Given some of the slight stumbles and routine tangents they dish, they don't sound like voracious fans of the genre. Even the most die-hard kung fu fan can make mistakes, but this track one is riddled with them. Kung fu film nuts will find a few things to grumble over, and I'd even suggest casual fans stay away from the track.
Conclusion: Aside from my bias of it being a personal favorite kung fu film, Master of the Flying Guillotine is regarded as one of the genres most fun and influential efforts. This resorted fully complete print is great, and considering the deteriorating state of kung fu prints, the transfer and extras satisfy.