Judge Mike Pinsky once let a drunken monkey loose in his house, but it didn't teach him any useful kung fu moves, other than the "deadly flying poop" technique.
"I want that one-armed boxer—and nobody's going to stop me!"—Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kang)
In the years since the Ching government decided that the followers of the former Han leaders must be put in their place, Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kang Kam) has waited. Disguised as a Buddhist monk, he has practiced the art of assassination in secret. But when his disciples are killed by a one-armed warrior (Jimmy Wang Yu), Fung comes out of hiding to turn his deadly flying guillotine loose.
Master of the Flying Guillotine is one of those strange films that falls into all the cracks. A semi-sequel to the Shaw Brothers' The Flying Guillotine (but made by an independent studio in Taiwan) and Jimmy Wang Yu's One-Armed Boxer, it combines two unrelated franchises. Historically, it also strides two periods in the kung fu genre, that alleged dead zone between the untimely death of Bruce Lee and the rise of Jackie Chan. Its star, Jimmy Wang Yu, is best known to American audiences for having been digitally removed from one of his own films and replaced by Steve Oedekerk to make the lame Kung Pow: Enter the Fist. But even on his own, he is not much of an actor; he is not even much of a martial artist. And yet Master of the Flying Guillotine somehow works.
It is not really clear exactly why it works. It is not the plot. Actually, Master of the Flying Guillotine appears to have several plots. In its first act, it looks like one of those "tournament" films that form the prototype for most martial arts video games you see these days. The one-armed boxer, Yu (Jimmy Wang Yu), runs a martial arts school and goes to visit a neighboring school holding a tournament with the usual collection of theatrical fighting styles (especially the flamboyant monkey style!) in attendance. You may even find the yoga-fighting villain familiar: a version of him turns up in the Street Fighter games years later. But oddly, the tournament formula does not really sum up this film: our one-armed hero Yu does not actually enter the tournament, and leaves before it is over.
Then the film switches tracks and becomes a revenge tale, another familiar plot to kung fu movie fans. Fung, wielding his flying guillotine, a razor-lined hat that would frighten Oddjob, lines up an assortment of foreign fighters to take out our hero. And so, we get the usual assortment of battles, each building on the last like increasingly elaborate dance numbers. But no, that is not strictly true either. Yu actually cheats in all his battles, setting often brutal traps to outwit the bad guys where his limited fighting skill cannot keep up. The whole business does not make a lot of sense when you add it all up, but its unpredictable nature is part of the fun.
So the plot is not exactly what we expected, but does it at least look good?
Also, the print itself often looks like it was pieced together like a Frankenstein monster, but the color is pretty bright and most scenes suffer only from some flickering and fading. This is actually the second release of this film from Pathfinder Home Entertainment. The previous single-disc edition was marketed as an "ultimate edition." Apparently, it was merely penultimate. This new release is billed as an "anniversary deluxe edition," but since the film was made in 1976 (although records are spotty on this account), it does not actually appear to celebrate any relevant anniversary at all (nor is it particularly "deluxe," as you shall see below). The Chinese version of the film is anamorphic and has improved color balance from the previous release, although all the same scratches and nicks are present, making this less a "restoration" than a reconstruction.
The previous edition included the English dub with the extended Mandarin cut of the film (using the original soundtrack during the three excised minutes of footage). Here, Pathfinder puts the truncated English edit on an entirely separate disc, with no extras. Why would anybody bother to watch it? The Mandarin soundtrack does not fare much better, and you would hear better sound effects slapping a side of beef yourself in front of your television. Although the film is advertised as "restored," its condition still leaves much to be desired. Still, it probably looks better than it has since its original release, and Pathfinder Entertainment has worked hard to assemble a 2.35:1 uncut print, including a dozen minutes snipped from previous American releases. Of course, Master of the Flying Guillotine was thought lost entirely, so its rough state might be forgiven. Besides, like so much else here, the piecemeal print gives feeling that you are catching something forbidden, like sneaking out of your room at night to catch this on some grainy television while your parents are asleep.
The first disc (the Chinese edit) used to include an excellent and lively commentary track by film critics and kung fu fans Wade Major and Andy Klein. They gave historical background on the story, production history on the film, and plenty on Jimmy Wang Yu, from his attempts to play with film clichés to his seedy Triad connections. I was not expecting much from this track, given the seeming slightness of the movie itself, but I was quite startled. Notice that I referred to this commentary in the past tense. This new "anniversary edition" jettisons that commentary for a new one in which film critic and performance artist Alex Luiu joins Major and Klein. Little discussion of the film's history is offered (Major and Klein seem to assume you already own the previous edition), and instead we hear a lot of reminiscences from Luiu's childhood about the popularity of kung fu movies. There is decidedly less energy and too much dead air.
The only other addition is a pair of interviews with Jimmy Wang Yu, recorded in Japanese (with subtitles) during a 2003 revival at a Tokyo film festival, evidently as a tie-in to Kill Bill (which featured an homage to the flying guillotine). Watch the interviewer gingerly mention Jimmy's past battles with alcoholism…
Let us do the math on this two-disc double-dip. Plus: anamorphic transfer, brief interviews with Jimmy Wang Yu. Minus: downgraded commentary track, wasted second disc, costs more money. The bottom line: if you already own the single-disc edition or can pick it up cheaply, do not bother with this double-dip. Given the weak condition of this restoration, the addition of anamorphic enhancement adds little to the quality of the film.
In the end, though, the film itself makes or breaks any DVD release. So what do we have here with Master of the Flying Guillotine? On the surface, this looks like every martial arts action movie you have seen before. And yet, it cleverly subverts every cliché of the martial arts action movie to seem fresh. It does not look so good, and yet it is extremely fun to watch. Again, Jimmy Wang Yu's fighting (aided by the inventive choreography of Lau Kar Leung, best known to American audiences for being fired as director of the brilliant Drunken Master 2) is not up to the level of his more famous contemporaries. But his stone-faced disregard for the rules by which the kung fu movie hero plays gives him a certain appeal. And as limited as his acting may be, he has great instincts as a director.
So why is a scratchy, wild little movie like Master of the Flying Guillotine so entertaining? Because it is so full of surprises. Just like our one-armed hero in his battle against evil, we must learn to expect the unexpected.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track with Andy Klein, Wade Major, and Alex Luiu
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