July 17, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
It's Master of the Flying Guillotine!
By Patrick Macias
A FLYING GUILLOTINE resembles a collapsible lamp shade outfitted with retractable buzz-saw teeth. Flung into the air like a human fishing line, it makes a sound somewhere between a gunshot and a train whistle. And when this deadly weapon finds its mark, i.e., someone's head, it decapitates with all the convenience of a palm-size French Revolution.
If understanding the flying guillotine takes seconds, mastering it takes a lifetime. At least it did for Wang Yu, a.k.a. Jimmy Wang Yu, the director, writer, and star of 1975's Master of the Flying Guillotine one of the greatest kung fu movies, and certainly the greatest flying guillotine film, of all time. The film is legendary for its preposterous title alone, though underviewed in actuality (scant years ago, only two prints in the world could be accounted for). The Flying Guillotine you might have heard of before. But Wang who?
Born in Shanghai in 1943, Wang Yu was a Hong Kong swimming champ plucked poolside to become the pre-Bruce Lee martial arts star of his day. The catch was, unlike Lee (and even, gads, Keanu), Wang Yu never knew kung fu. From day one, his fight scenes had to involve tricky editing, trampolines, and all manner of gimcracks best exemplified by the flying guillotine itself.
Perhaps one reason the right-handed Wang Yu never quite became a skilled fighter is that he spent most of his career with one hand tucked into his shirt playing one-limbed, left-handed characters. Wang Yu became a megastar in 1967 as the lead in director Chang Cheh's epochal One-Armed Swordsman. After a string of hits for his taskmasters at Shaw Brothers studios, Wang Yu was the first fight-film star to become a millionaire and duly treated himself to a Rolls Royce. In 1970 the bounty began to wither. After his biggest-ever hit, The Chinese Boxer, Wang Yu had a bitter falling out with the powerful Shaws. Effectively exiled from the Hong Kong film industry, he moved to Taiwan to star in, and sometimes direct, a long line of independently produced features of no certain quality.
In 1975, Wang Yu rolled out One-Arm Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine. The film did fair business across Asia and became a surprise decent-size hit in the United States in 1977 under the new title Master of the Flying Guillotine. But by this time, a string of seedy affairs and underworld scandals had reduced the former superstar to a powerless state of ruin from which he would never emerge. Wang Yu was washed up, but the cult of the Guillotine would only grow.
In this direct sequel to 1970's One-Armed Boxer, our hero has given up fighting and now runs a martial arts school where he teaches students to walk along the edges of wicker baskets. Meanwhile, a host of bizarre fighters saunters into town to compete in a World Cup-style kung fu tournament. Some are in league with a revenge-seeking blind monk who is wandering the countryside killing every one-armed man he stumbles across, hoping to eventually hit the right one with his flying guillotine (Wang Yu killed two of his disciples in the previous film, you see).
Wang Yu would probably lose in a real fight with lesser kung fools, but his physical limitations forced him to become a demonic film magician in the mold of Méliès. Flying Guillotine is full of jack-in-the-box surprises and Bugs Bunny-with-bloodshed set pieces, all inexplicably set to tunes culled from crackly Krautrock LPs (Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and Can feature prominently). The epic tournament, when the film truly leaps into inspired realms of low-budget, high-imagination filmmaking, has been acknowledged as the inspiration behind the Street Fighter II video game, meaning that Wang Yu is partially responsible for the coin-op equivalent of the electric guitar.
It's too bad this rerelease comes minus the hysterical English dub that (dis)graced the original '77 version, which helped to amplify the absurdity factor to the infinite power. But this subtitled "ultimate edition," featuring a scratchy but complete print delivers Wang Yu's legacy from the detritus of history. And all the wire fu and digital effects in the world have not lessened the lethal analog sting of the Flying Guillotine one bit. 'Master of the Flying Guillotine: Ultimate Edition' plays Fri/19-Thurs/25, Lumiere Theatre, S.F.; and Shattuck Cinemas, Berk. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.