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What wuxia fan can forget the first time they saw the red cap land on an unsuspecting victim’s head, drop a net, latch razor sharp blades around his neck and pop off said head like a Ken doll with the tug of a chain? Not many, and thus was born one of cinema’s most memorably bonkers weapons ever. Equal part ludicrous and glorious, writer-director-star Jimmy Wang Yu’s 1976 Master of the Flying Guillotine may be a late entry in Hong Kong’s martial arts glory years, but its shadow looms large nonetheless.
Shot in Taiwan, MotFG is the sequel to Wang’s One Armed Boxer, made for Golden Harvest in 1972. That shouldn’t be confused with The One Armed Swordsman, the 1967 Shaw Brothers classic that made the double-armed Wang a superstar, or for that matter with 1975’s plot-heavy Flying Guillotine. Convoluted as MotFG’s pedigree may be, its place as a prototype of the modern franchise is unquestionable.
This Flying Guillotine has its spiritual origins in Boxer, and the film picks up a matter of months after the events of that lm. After Wang’s Boxer dispatches two faux Tibetan lamas as payback for losing his martial arts school and his arm, it’s discovered their blind master, Fung (Kam Kong), is the titular guillotine wielder. The fantastically browed Fung sets out from his misty mountain retreat to murder any practitioner with one arm — and it just so happens there are many of them — and avenge his disciples. His first and only stop is at a tournament the Boxer is watching. This after mistakenly beheading a harmless bum after lunch. He is blind after all.
For wuxia fans, Master of the Flying Guillotine is a good as it gets. An enormous hit upon release, it’s a cultural touchstone of sorts, hitting theaters just as relations between China and the U.S. were being normalized, and Hong Kong was staring down the barrel of social unrest and rampant police corruption. Mistrust of the powers that be was the norm, so Fung’s status as a Manchu Qing assassin, hunting down lingering Ming rebels like the Boxer may not be pure coincidence. Also not coincidental was the “otherness” of the lm’s secondary tournament fighters, which dominate the second act. Among the greatest hits: the Thai martial artist who likes to dance and spit before competing, the Indian yogi who can stretch his arms to ridiculous lengths, and the Japanese tonfas (batons) fighter who’s nickname is Wins- Without-A-Knife. He’s an assassin, so one guess as to whether he really has no knives, and Chinese actors in laughable brownface play the caricatures of the foreign pugilists.
Despite its (now) retrograde sensibility, MotFG gave rise to one of the cinema’s earliest prequels — 1977’s The Fatal Flying Guillotine, Fung’s origin story — and anyone who has ever played a video game along the lines of Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter has MotFG to thank for their notorious finishing moves. It’s widely believed that Street Fighter’s Dhalsim character is based on the film’s yogi. Quentin Tarantino, who’s fond of homages, has gone on record stating Kill Bill owes a debt to MotFG, and Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau gave the lm a shout-out with 2012’s The Guillotines, about a band of assassins trained in the art of that peculiar weapon.
Obviously modestly budgeted? Sure. Histrionic? You bet. But see it with its original, garish Krautrock soundtrack and it’s easy to see what gave Master of the Flying Guillotine its staying power.
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