11 Jun THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975)
By Brendan Davis of The Bedrock Blog
Inventive weapons are one of the things I love in wuxia and kung fu movies. From the locking swords of One-Armed Swordsman to the Five Venom Spider of Web of Death, they come in all shapes and sizes, but always add a sense of danger and creativity. One of the more memorable entries in this category is The Flying Guillotine, a terrifying weapon that drapes victim’s heads and decapitates in a single clean bite. There are quite a few Flying Guillotine movies, my favorites are Master of the Flying Guillotine and Vengeful Beauty, but The Flying Guillotine, directed by Ho Meng-Hua and starring Chen Kuan-Tai and Ku Feng, is the original and it is well-worth watching.
Ho Meng-Hua has a pretty eclectic range of films. Monkey Goes West and Cave of the Silken Web couldn’t be more different from Black Magic, for example. He made Lady Hermit, The Jade Raksha, but also The Oily Maniac and Abbot of Shaolin. His venture into the realm of inventive weaponry is memorable and had a lasting impact, inspiring several other movies of its kind.
The Flying Guillotine is set during the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor in the Qing Dynasty. When the emperor’s methods become too oppressive for his own Manchu officials, he resorts to assassination to eliminate meddlesome censors without inflaming public resentment. He directs Xin Kang (Ku Feng) to head the killings. Kang is inspired by spinning top jugglers and plate spinners. He combines the two concepts to invent the Flying Guillotine, which is effective but requires tremendous training to wield. Due to this difficulty of use, a squad of 12 Flying Guillotine assassins is formed and their story is the heart of the film. But the emperor is fearful the weapon might be too powerful, so he instructs Xin Kang to kill any squad members that prove disloyal (this threat extends to their family as well).
The story follows a few members of the Flying Guillotine squad, but the focus is on Ma Teng (Chen Kuan-Tai). He is the top of the squad, mastering the Flying Guillotine early on. His skill attracts the envy of the servile and ambitious Ah Kun (Wei Hung), who functions as one of the main antagonists. Ma Teng forms strong bonds of brotherhood with Xie Tianfu (Wong Yu) and Luo Peng (Lam Wai-Tiu). Much of the early portion of the movie is about their training and early missions. This is an elite squad with a dedicated purpose, who all make vows of personal loyalty to the emperor until the bloodshed takes a toll. When Xie Tianfu’s hands tremble so he cannot kill, this throws the brotherhood of the Flying Guillotines into turmoil. The remainder of the film deals with the conflict this produces and Ma Teng’s life in its aftermath. It leads to an exciting conclusion, but it takes time to build characters and relationships along the way.
The Flying Guillotine is a well-rounded movie that offers a complete viewing experience. It begins in the palace of the emperor and ends in a very distant place, the homestead of a couple hiding in the south. There is a sense of real passage of time, and a sense of movement over great distance. The movie features solid action, but the intrigue, the suspense, and the drama take center stage. It is also a love story, which is handled well, not as an afterthought. Despite covering so much ground in just over 100 minutes, all of the developments feel natural and well-constructed.
The love story in particular works for me. It is handled efficiently, and the romance begins when a street performer named Yu Ping, uses her singing and drumming talents to help Ma Teng make a narrow escape from members of the squad who are tracking him down. She nurses him back to health in a temple and they try to live a simple life, working fields and raising a child together. The second half of the movie is devoted to their story and it all comes together quite nicely by the end. By the time the action kicks in again, you care a lot about the couple and want to see them survive.
Though the concept of The Flying Guillotine is grim, the beheadings are pretty restrained (if still unnerving). There are clear shots of people being decapitated, but the camera spends more of its time lingering on things like hands clutching to tables to support their headless bodies. It is bloody, but not as bloody as it could be. And it is somewhat artful in its depiction. A movie like this runs the risk of only being about the core gimmick, and what makes it successful for me, is it never uses the Flying Guillotine as a crutch. The weapon is amazing, but it isn’t the only reason to see the movie.
The Flying Guillotine is definitely worth watching, but it is important to go in with the right expectation. The Flying Guillotine itself is not yet the star. It still feels like a classic Shaw Brothers movie, and the weapon, while strange and deadly, is supported by a well-developed story. The Flying Guillotine may not be as wild as some of the movies that followed (and I can’t recommend the movies that follow enough), but Ho Meng-Hua introduces one of the most memorable weapons in martial arts movie history and takes his plot and characters seriously.
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