Monday, June 4, 2012

MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976, Jimmy Wang Yu, First Films)

Without a doubt, this is my favorite Chinese film of all time. If you made a checklist of everything you wanted in a kung fu movie (and I would encourage you to do so, because it's a fun way to pass an hour), it still wouldn't have as many brilliant bits of insanity as this film does. It is the work of a deranged savant. To put it into perspective, this is a film where it's not enough to have an evil Yoga master who stretches his arms to strangle his opponents, we also have to see our hero bend one of those arms against a wooden beam and shatter it, all accompanied by a Kroutrock soundtrack that is still legendary in some circles.

This film stars and is directed by Jimmy Wang Yu, who was the biggest star in Asia before Bruce Lee (and again in the years between Bruce's death and Jackie Chan's ascension). Wang Yu is an interesting guy; he's a former swimming champion who became a star in Chang Cheh's ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, which was the first movie to gross 1 million dollars at the Hong Kong box office. He went on to reprise the role for Shaw Brothers in RETURN OF THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN (which is another classic) and again in Japan for the little known gem ZATOICHI MEETS THE ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, one of the first crossovers of it's kind in film history.

Wang Yu was not a typical action star, he was highly ambitious and creative and ultimately became dissatisfied with working in the Shaw Brothers' studio (Indeed, SB had tried to replace Wang Yu with David Chiang in THE NEW ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN, which is a fine film, though not as good as the two Wang Yu pictures). By the 70's Wang Yu had, with Triad backing, formed his own independent studio in Taiwan called First Films where he wrote, directed, and starred in several films of varying quality.

Audiences demanded another "One Armed" picture and Jimmy obliged in 1971 with THE ONE ARMED BOXER, his own version of the story. Meanwhile, at Shaw in 1975 they had released THE FLYING GUILLOTINE, and Jimmy decided to make a crossover between his ONE ARMED BOXER and the hero of that film.

This film is a revenge plot, but inverted: in this case the villainous title character, not the hero, wants revenge for the deaths of his two students (who were the main antagonists in ONE ARMED BOXER). He sets out, disguised as a Buddhist lama, swearing to kill every one armed man he finds until he gets his revenge. Meanwhile, there's to be a massive kung fu tournament in the One Armed Boxer's region and he sets out to observe it, unaware the Flying Guillotine is on it's way.

The movie's structured like a three act play: In the first act all the major players are introduced, in the second we (and Wang Yu's character) see all the physical bad guys in motion at the tournament, and finally in the third act Wang Yu's character defeat a wonderful collection of foreign baddies. What's really unique is that he doesn't do it through learning a new style, but by studying his opponents' weaknesses and devising traps to exploit them. We, the audience, will see him prepare but the movie never makes it explicit until the trap has been sprung. We find out along with the bad guys, which is inventive.

This film is also pretty stylishly shot and directed. Tarantino has said that this film looks like a Jack Kirby comic, and that's pretty fantastic praise considering how great Kirby's action scenes were. I don't want to get too film critic-y but this movie has a number of beautiful and unusual shots and angles that also make perfect narrative sense, which is saying a lot when you consider this was made on a micro budget and very likely financed by gangsters.

HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION

COOLEST MOMENTS:
- The entire soundtrack.
- The opening scene is magnificent, as our villain finds out about his students' deaths; decapitates a chicken, blows up his house and swears revenge.
- The entire tournament sequence. Special points for the pole fight with spikes.
- Anytime someone's head is ripped off.
- The Yogi's arm getting broken.
- The fight with the Thai boxer is sadistic and wonderful.
- The entire final fight in the mortuary.

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