In 1975, Ho Meng-Hwa made the first Flying Guillotine film for the Shaw Brothers Studios and it was a little sensation, introducing the deadliest weapon the martial arts world had ever seen. Although production issues delayed the sequel by years – arguably killing the opportunity for a bonafide franchise – a cluster of semi-sequels and knock-offs emerged, ensuring the Guillotine remained in the public eye for the best part of four years. Thus, I’m taking a look back at a set of films that, even at their worst, were a lot of fun but, at their best, were quite magnificent.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s no cooler weapon than the Flying Guillotine. Legend has it that during the Qing dynasty, the Yung Cheng Emperor had it designed to assassinate his enemies. No one knows for sure if the Flying Guillotine was ever real or not but there’s no denying it’s an awesome spectacle for the movies. It looks kind of like a domed beekeeper’s hat on a chain. The assassin flings it at his or her target from a safe distance then pulls a chain that locks a veil-like trap around the victim’s head. A second yank triggers blades in the rim that lock shut and chop the head clean off.
Not only is this pretty tough to defend against (the whole manoeuvre’s over in seconds) but, thanks to the fact that it can be used from 100ft away, it means no one even sees the assassin and their identity can be kept secret. The potential destruction – moral as well as physical – that stems from this invincible weapon’s existence is what lies is at the centre of Ho Meng-Hwa’s original film.
Flying Guillotine (1975)
It begins with Xin Kang (Feng Ku), a loyal servant of the Emperor, creating the Flying Guillotine and subsequently training an elite squad of assassins to use it. After four months, a young acolyte named Ma Teng (Kuan Tai Chen) stands out as being the master of the weapon and emerges as the natural leader of the squad.
There is much intrigue afoot in the Emperor’s palace though. Petty jealousies, strategic betrayals, mistrust everywhere. With twelve guys trained in using it and the Flying Guillotine making sudden violent death a guarantee for anyone who says the wrong thing to the wrong person, the Imperial atmosphere becomes one of suffocating paranoia. Who’s killing whom and why? This sets the scene for an almost Shakespearian power struggle.
The focus is on plot rather than fighting and, while there are some outrageous decapitations, there’s not a lot of actual kung fu. The script is loaded with political parallels and complex characters. Ma Teng, who soon turns his back on the Guillotine Squad when he realises how corrupt the Empire is, makes a terrific hero and Yang Chiang plays the Emperor as a wily, cruel and lecherous creeper. Most interesting though is Feng Ku’s portrayal of Xin Kang – a conflicted man whose sense of duty and natural flair for invention lead him to create a weapon of dangerous power, mirroring perhaps the Fathers of the Atomic Bomb (a threat that would very much have been in the minds of 1970s audiences).
On a technical level, the film is fantastic; among the most vibrant-looking Shaw films of its time. The sets are beautiful, evoking a strong sense of place, and it really does have something for everyone; sex, violence, romance, drama, adventure, revenge. It’s a thinking man’s romp that provides thrills and originality for martial arts lovers and would make an excellent entry point for newcomers too, owing to its strong storytelling.
Master Of The Flying Guillotine (1976)
While the Shaws wrangled with their sequel, Jimmy Wang Yu snuck in first, getting one up on his former studio and bringing the world Master Of The Flying Guillotine. To confuse matters further, he made it as a sequel to his own One-Armed Boxer (1971).
I think it’s possible that, if you love Flying Guillotine, you won’t love Master Of The Flying Guillotine and vice versa. Both have their merits but they’re poles apart in terms of content. In this one, the titular Master (Chin Kang) is seeking revenge on the One-Armed Boxer (Wang Yu) for the two Lamas killed in his first outing. The film begins with the Master blowing up his own house – just to give you an idea of what an absolute psychopath he is – then trekking off to find the Boxer. Unfortunately, being blind, he’s not sure of the Boxer’s identity so just wanders around the country in his swastika-patterned robes, on a crazed decapitating spree of literally every one-armed man he can find (yes, this is the real plot)…
The action takes place around a martial arts tournament so there’s a lot of excuses to fight and many different styles on display. If it’s duffing up you’re after, the film provides it in spades (and spears, and swords, etc), contrasting with Flying Guillotine‘s more plot-driven approach. It’s pretty much wall-to-wall from the moment the blind dude blows his house up to the last, blood-soaked frame. The martial arts are scrappy and brutal too, but with added emphasis on surreal supernatural skills (the Chinese guy in brownface with magical extending arms is a jaw-dropper for several reasons).
There’s some prime psychotronic value to be had here, from the super-squirty decaps to the freakazoid soundtrack (largely Neu! tracks played at half-speed so they sound even more creepy and industrial) and the manic final fight is masterly. It takes place in a room full of birds, features heads spinning round 360 degrees, and culminates with one of the most joyfully flamboyant finishing blows imaginable.
Master‘s main weakness is just that there’s almost no story to tie it together which makes even the most bonkers of fights seem a little tired after a while. That said, if you’re a Wang Yu fan, this is definitely a chance to see him at his most unhinged and it’s mad enough to work as a prime example of lower budget ’70s kung-fu and its no-holds-barred appeal.
Fatal Flying Guillotine (1977)
If you want something even cheaper though, you can always rely on the Taiwanese alternative. In the same way the Italians remade American hits in weird and wonderful ways, the Taiwanese re-interpreted successful Hong Kong features, sometimes with more energy and flair than the originals. Fatal Flying Guillotine is certainly not one of the best examples but it’s amiable and inventive enough to stay the right side of entertaining.
In this one an old guy named Shen has made himself “sick through exercise” (he’s done too much kung fu, basically) and has left his family to set up home in a place called The Valley Of No Return. Having spare time on his hands, he creates a weapon called the Lightning Strike in the English dub (although in the Chinese version it’s the called the Bloody Whirl, which is just amazing, frankly). It is, of course, a Flying Guillotine by any other name. The extra Fatal qualities to which the title refers are added by the fact that Shen wields two Guillotines at once and somehow makes them spin at an incredible rate without moving his hands. Predictably, heads roll.
The good guys in this are a pack of well-meaning Shaolin monks whose secret medical scriptures have been stolen by an evil prince. Said evil prince teams up with Shen who helps defend the scriptures against the monks and a grieving wanderer (Carter Wong), who’s out for vengeance against the prince too. As you’d expect, it all leads to an almighty duff-up at the end.
This is very low budget so the choreography is rough and ready but it’s always enjoyable, with a ton of cool animal styles and a great deal of exuberant wirework. The Guillotine devices themselves are shot almost pornographically, with close-ups on spinning blades and the devices frequently engulfing the entire camera and this shameless glorification of deadly weaponry is much fun if you’re that way inclined (which I am). For fans of grindhouse martial arts, Fatal Flying Guillotine ticks almost all the boxes. It’s gory, campy, fast and dumb in the sweetest way.
Flying Guillotine 2 : Palace Carnage (1978)
SO WHAT HAPPENED? How come two completely unofficial Guillotine movies came out before the Shaws’ first sequel? Well, Ho Meng-Hwa declined to return as director (although he did, in the meantime, pump out a pseudo-Guillotine film called Dragon Missile) so Cheng Kang (of 14 Amazons fame) was drafted in. Half way through the shoot though, Kang left and Hua Shen (of, um, Infra-Man fame) took over, due to increasing troubles on set…
See, Chen Kuan Tai and Liu Wu Chi were set to reprise their lead roles as Ma Teng and his wife but this didn’t happen. Liu Wu Chi quite literally disappeared from Hong Kong (and never made another film again) then Chen Kuan Tai fell out with the Shaws and stormed off the project too. To make matters worse, Hsiao Yao – brought in to replace the vanished Liu Wu Chi – pulled out as well, leaving the roles filled at the eleventh hour by Ti Lung and Chen Szu Chia. A total of three screenwriters worked on rewrites and, by the final draft, neither Ma Teng or his wife had a particularly large role in the story anyway!
You’d think the film would be a frightful mess after all that but, on the contrary, Palace Carnage is a surprisingly strong entry into the franchise and, besides some awkward hair continuity, the offscreen troubles don’t impact the onscreen action. The evil Emperor is still at large (recast as Ku Feng, who tones down the weirdness and brings a straight-faced brutality to the role) and he’s angry that Ma Teng has invented an Iron Umbrella device to counter the invincible Guillotines. What’s a despot to do then but have a DOUBLE GUILLOTINE invented (the original title of the film was The Improved Guillotine)? Same dome, but with double blades – one to crack the Iron Umbrella and another to chop through the neck. Hang on to your heads, lads.
Meanwhile, Na Lan (Shi Szu), the daughter of one of the Palace’s many lords, plots to kill the Emperor while assembling her own amazing pink-clad Lady Guillotine Squad. Espionage abounds as the Emperor’s aide Bao Ying (Lo Lieh) suspects Na Lan’s intentions and tries to outsmart her in a cat and mouse game with a sky-high body count.
The plot moves at an obscene pace. Although some of the hyper-kinetic editing is probably down to the production challenges, it makes the film feel oddly modern, as does the extensive use of hand-held camerawork. It possesses a fierce energy and way more onscreen violence than the other films in the series. There’s a lot of giving-the-public-what-they-want in this one too, with some incredible spear fights, jaw-dropping Guillotine work and a final fight that’s as bloody and brutal as anything in the whole Shaws catalogue.
Vengeful Beauty (1978)
The same year Palace Carange eventually hit screens, Ho Meng-Hwa returned to the franchise for what would be the official final word on the matter. The incredible Chen Ping takes heroic centre stage here as Quiyan, a woman whose husband is killed by the Emperor’s Guillotine Squad. Although two months pregnant, Quiyan is Wudang trained and seriously badass, so she tracks down the assassins with view to giving them a taste of their own medicine. Eventually, in a loose kind of tie-in, Quiyan teams up with Ma Sen (Norman Chu), a curiously similar character to Ma Teng from the first two films (just conveniently without wife and child), and the action builds to a suitably cataclysmic end.
Although lower budget and less ambitious than the first two Shaw entries, there’s some gorgeous production design and three superb setpiece fights; an insanely exciting brawl with the Guillotine Squad in the ruined Buddhist temple; a cheaply-done but still stunning treetop bamboo battle; and a climactic illusory showdown where all the bad guys are wearing Lo Lieh’s face as a mask. Each of these scenes deserve to be recognised as classics, but the film, for some reason, is curiously underrated and hard to find nowadays.
Its only real flaw is that the Flying Guillotine itself is so underused here. You don’t get a lot of blade for your buck. It aims a lot lower intellectually than the original and features far more of the exploitation elements that both Ping and Meng-Hwa were known for (Susan Yam Yam Shaw fights topless at one point, to give you an idea of the tone here) but if you can take a little sleaze with your duffings-up, Vengeful Beauty delivers a pacy, twisty, worthwhile watch.
The Flying Guillotine, for some reason, fell out of fashion after Vengeful Beauty and while it’s been featured in several films since (from modern kung fu classics like Iron Monkey 2 and Heroic Trio to exploitation movies like Violent Shit 3 and Machine Girl), it’s very rarely been the star of the show again. Andrew Lau attempted to reboot the franchise in 2012 with Guillotines, an old-fashioned tale of the Guillotine Squad going after rebels but it was barely watchable due to an abundance of shockingly bad CGI and convoluted plotting.
Still, we’ll always have the old days. What began as an allegorical myth – a weapon so deadly that it corrupts the souls of all but the strongest of men – eventually turned into something of a lark – a glamorized tool of stone cold badassery – but, whichever way you (ahem) slice it, the Flying Guillotine remains one of the most visually compelling and consistently entertaining tropes of kung fu cinema.