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Pulp Culture
Anniversary edition of 'Flying Guillotine' has the chops

January 13, 2005
By Franklin Harris

Few martial arts films not starring Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan have endured like Jimmy Wang Yu's 1975 classic, "Master of the Flying Guillotine."

Filmed on a shoestring budget and outside Hong Kong's studio system, "Master of the Flying Guillotine" pits Wang Yu's One-Armed Boxer — a character he originated in 1971's "One Armed Boxer" — against one of the most memorable (and imitated) villains in all of martial arts cinema, Fung Sheng Wu Chi, a blind assassin who effortlessly decapitates his victims with his "flying guillotine." (You know Fung is the villain because of his outrageously bushy eyebrows.)

Just in time for the film's 30th anniversary, Pathfinder Home Entertainment has released a two-disc edition of "Master of the Flying Guillotine." It retails for $24.98 and features several upgrades from Pathfinder's previous single-disc release. The new edition is enhanced for widescreen TVs and includes the English-dubbed version on a separate disc. Also, film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein, who provide an audio commentary on the old disc, return for a second round of informative discussions, this time joined by critic Alex Luu. (One of the first things Wade and Klein do is correct their mistakes from the first commentary, like noting that "Master of the Flying Guillotine" was produced in Taiwan, not Hong Kong.)

"Master of the Flying Guillotine" is set in 1730, when Manchurian conquerors ruled China's Han majority. Facing continuing unrest, the emperor turns to assassins and foreign enforcers to put down Han rebels. One of those rebels is the legendary One Armed Boxer, and the deadliest of the assassins, of course, is the Master of the Flying Guillotine (Kam Kong), who travels the countryside disguised as a Buddhist monk.

But Fung Sheng Wu Chi also has a personal score to settle with the One Armed Boxer. In "One Armed Boxer," the One Armed Boxer kills two other martial artists, and as we learn in "Flying Guillotine," the two were Fung's students. Now the vengeful assassin kills every one-armed boxer he encounters, just to be sure. But none of his victims is the right man. Who knew there were so many one-armed kung-fu fighters in China?

But the Master of the Flying Guillotine isn't the only assassin gunning for the One Armed Boxer. We also meet a Thai kickboxer (Sham Chin Bo), a Japanese ronin (Lung Fei) and an Indian yoga master with retractable arms (Wong Wing Sang). All three show off their fighting skills during a martial arts tournament that comprises the film's middle third.

Martial arts tournaments are a staple of kung fu movies. But this one defies our expectations. The One Armed Boxer never participates in it. But he does use it to size up the assassins who are out to kill him. Which leads us to the film's final act, in which the One Armed Boxer faces off against his opponents one-on-one, setting elaborate traps for the two most dangerous of them, the kickboxer and Fung.

The action, choreographed by Lau Kar Leung ("Drunken Master II"), may seem slow when compared to more recent kung fu movies, but it was groundbreaking in its day. Wang Yu, who also directs the film, makes good use of his limited resources (and, frankly, limited martial arts skills) by staging the two climactic fights in claustrophobic settings, heightening the tension without blowing his budget.

Pathfinder's presentation, on the other hand, is far from perfect. The film shows noticeable wear, which sometimes creates a distracting flicker effect. Still, this is forgivable, considering the poor condition of the materials Pathfinder had to work with. Sad to say, but this is probably as good as this movie is ever going to look.

And when you're watching "Master of the Flying Guillotine," listen closely. The music that plays whenever Fung appears may sound familiar because Quentin Tarantino borrowed it for "Kill Bill, Vol. 1."

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