Master of the Flying Guillotine

on May 24, 2002 by Wade Major
   Thanks to the success of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," many once-ridiculed Hong Kong martial arts classics of the '70s are enjoying a long overdue reevaluation. Among the most notable of these is 1975's "Master of the Flying Guillotine," perhaps the single most seminal film of the post-Bruce Lee, pre-Jackie Chan period.

   Written and directed by its star, the popular Jimmy Wang Yu, "Master of the Flying Guillotine" (aka "One Armed Boxer vs. The Flying Guillotine") is, at first glance, an atypical Ming/Ching Dynasty picture, the Hong Kong equivalent of the American Western. In early 18th century China, as underground Ming loyalists strategize the overthrow of their oppressive Manchu rulers, fateful, epic clashes are inevitable. In this instance it's a collision between two mighty Kung Fu experts whose martial prowess more than compensates for their respective handicaps. Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kang) is a blind Ching assassin hell-bent on avenging the deaths of his apprentices at the hands of the notorious one-armed boxer (Wang Yu), a popular rebel leader. Equipped only with the fearsome "flying guillotine"--a kind of Vegematic hat triggered by a yank of the chain tether--he finds the Boxer in a remote village where a fighting tournament has attracted a host of martial arts experts from as far away as Thailand and India.

   Exploiting the mercenary motives of the foreign fighters, Fung Sheng recruits them to help him corner the Boxer. But they prove no match for the rebel, who cleverly disposes of them one by one in a series of increasingly enthralling set-pieces, thus setting up the showdown with Fung Sheng that is the film's raison d'être.

   This Pathfinder release of "Master of the Flying Guillotine" is uniquely historic in that it represents the movie's first-ever American release in the original language. Until a few years ago, in fact, the original version, which ran 12 minutes longer than its more widely-seen English-dubbed counterpart, was thought forever lost. Thanks to efforts by Pathfinder executives, however, the definitive version of "Master" has been restored.

   Though Jimmy Wang Yu's place in martial arts film history continues to be hotly debated, there is little disagreement over his abilities as a filmmaker, abilities that are exceptionally well represented in "Master of the Flying Guillotine." Undeniably archetypal of its genre, it is also a film whose technical sophistication far exceeds that of most other Hong Kong movies from the era, exploiting genre conventions even as it repeatedly finds ways to inject those conventions with fresh and innovative approaches.

   Granted, "Master of the Flying Guillotine" is still a film of its time and its genre, an effort that may be lost on all but devoted fans. But for those sufficiently attuned to appreciate its magic and majesty, Jimmy Wang Yu's restored masterpiece may very well be the archival discovery of the decade.    Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, Kam Kang, Lau Ka Wing and Wang Lung Wei. Directed and written by Jimmy Wang Yu. Produced by Wong Cheuk Hon. A Pathfinder release. Martial-Arts. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Rated R. Running time: 93 min.

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