Master of the Flying Guillotine

Jimmy Wang Yu was one of the most colourful figures ever to emerge from the Hong Kong movie scene. He made his debut in Temple of Red Lotus in 1965, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that he became a megastar. The vehicle was Chang Cheh’s film The One-Armed Swordsman, a movie that gave birth to a new, bloodier and more anti-heroic trend in Hong Kong movies. Jimmy played the main character Fang Kang, a man who loses an arm and then has to learn a devastating one-limbed sword style. The film was so successful that it spawned an official sequel Return of the One-Armed Swordsman in 1969, also directed by Chang Cheh. Then in 1970 Jimmy appeared as The Chinese Boxer, in a movie considered to be the first ‘real’ kung fu film, beating Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss to Hong Kong screens by a year. But the one-armed swordsman persona wouldn’t leave him, and in 1971 he appeared in Shaw Brothers’ collaboration with Japan’s Daiei Motion Picture Co. Zatoichi Meets the One-Armed Swordsman, the 22nd entry in the popular series about a blind Samurai played by Shintaro Katsu.

By this time, Jimmy was becoming frustrated with his low pay and lack of input at Shaw Brothers, so he broke his contract and moved to Taiwan. He made some films with Shaws’ arch-rival studio Golden Harvest, including a 1971 movie entitled The One-Armed Boxer. As the title suggests, the movie combined aspects of both Jimmy’s most famous characters to tell the story of a guy who loses an arm and must use his remaining one (and amazing kung fu skills) to get revenge. Unfortunately Jimmy’s popularity was starting to suffer in the face of competition from new stars like Bruce Lee, Ti Lung and David Chiang. Jimmy’s screen kung fu was never of a very high standard (he had been a professional water polo player before getting into movies) and younger guys with real martial arts training made him look slow and sloppy in comparison.

More and more, Jimmy began to fall back on his classic stock characters. In 1976 he appeared in One-Armed Swordsmen, which united him with David Chiang, the titular character from Shaws’ and Chang Cheh’s 1971 spin-off movie The New One-Armed Swordsman. Also in 1976 he appeared as another handicapped fighter in One-Armed Swordsman Against Nine Killers. The following year he made One-Arm Chivalry Fights Against One-Arm Chivalry and Return of the Chinese Boxer. By now Jimmy was up against the likes of Jackie Chan, Gordon Liu and The Venoms at the box office and his star was well and truly on the wane. But he still had one all-time classic left in him, another film he made in 1976: Master Of The Flying Guillotine.

In the previous year’s Shaw Brothers hit The Flying Guillotine, director Ho Meng-hua had introduced a goofy decapitation device resembling a large ornamental ashtray. While it’s extremely doubtful that such an instrument really existed, there were mentions in historic texts of a bladed device that could remove heads from a distance, and with a bit of typically imaginative Shaw art department trickery the flying guillotine was born. In Master Of The Flying Guillotine the weapon has undergone something of a redesign — the basic operation is the same but the apparatus is now a handy fold-away porta-guillotine that wouldn’t look out of place in a stylish evening ensemble. Apparently constructed from a lampshade, some fishnet stockings, a bear trap and an old toilet chain, in skilled hands this remarkable gadget could behead a grown man and return his severed cranium to the hands of the wielder quicker than you could say, “I guess I won’t be needing any more hats.”

The movie is set in a very familiar period for kung fu movie fans, the mid-17th century. The Manchus have recently usurped control of China from the ruling Ming Dynasty, and are sending out legions of assassins to wipe out any surviving Ming patriots. Blind Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), the eponymous master of the title, is just such a murderer. On receiving word that Yu Tien-lung the one-armed boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu) killed his two disciples (events which took place in, appropriately enough, One-Armed Boxer), the blind master leaves his mountain retreat to find their killer.

Yu Tien-lung meanwhile is now happily (or at least, as close as Jimmy Wang Yu ever gets to being happy) running a kung fu school and impressing students with his ability to walk on walls – it’s all about breath control, it seems. Being a kung fu master of such high renown, Yu is invited to participate in a tournament being held by Wu Chang-sang of the Eagle Claw school (Chui Chung-hei), but the threat of being unmasked as a Ming patriot gives him pause. In the end Yu agrees to go, but only to observe the different kung fu styles on display. Over at the Eagle Claw school, a surly Thai Boxer named Nai Men (Sham Chin-bo) wants to enter the tournament. While initially reluctant due to his Chinese-only policy, Wu Chang-sang agrees – but only after Nai Men has defeated several of his men and his talented daughter Shao-tieh (Doris Lung Chun-erh).

Little does Wu realise that Nai Men, along with Japanese fighter ‘Wins Without A Knife’ Yakuma (Lung Fei, The World Of Drunken Master) and an Indian Yogi (Wong Wing-sang), is in league with Fung Sheng Wu Chi. Actually, looking at these three guys it’s obvious that the no-foreigners policy isn’t enforced that often. As for Fung Sheng, he’s also heading for the tournament disguised as a monk, intent on killing any fighters he suspects of being Ming patriots. He stops in a teahouse along the way and as is often the way in kung fu movies, a drunken bum (Au Lap-bo) is pretending to be the hero in order to score a free meal. Just to be on the safe side Fung Sheng whips out the guillotine and removes the one-armed guy’s head.

With all of the fighters now assembled the tournament can begin. The bouts progress as follows:

A 3-section pole fighter (co-action choreographer Lau Kar-wing) defeats a, um, regular pole fighter.

Sword master Wang Jiang (Jack Lung Sai-ga) vs. ‘Wins Without A Knife’ Yakuma. The Japanese fighter wins by cheating, since he does indeed have a knife hidden in his tonfa.

A kung fu fighter with a long hair braid (Hau Pak-wai) takes on the smallest Mongolian strongman in history (Ho Wai-hung). They fight each other to a dead standstill, literally.

Kung fu fighter ‘Daredevil’ Lee San (Sun Jung-chi) fights ‘Iron Coat’ Niu Sze (Chai Hau-keung). Daredevil has his leg shattered but still wins, defeating his opponent’s iron-skin style by ripping his eyes out.

Shao-tieh and her eagle claw style vs. a monkey boxer (Wang Tai-lang). The latter runs away after she makes his trousers fall down.

A Javanese knife fighter (Ma Chin-ku) fights a rope kung fu master (Chin Lung) on poles over a bed of knives. Despite being the one who insisted on this, it’s the Javanese guy who ends up impaled. The no-foreigners policy takes another blow.

A guy with ‘tornado knives’ (Wong Lik) faces off against the evil yoga master. The Indian’s ability to lengthen his arms at will brings him victory.

A Tiger & Crane Fist stylist takes on the Thai boxer Nai Men, who struggles for a while but eventually wins.

A one-armed Snake Fist fighter (Hsieh Hsing) vs. a Mantis Fist master (Sham Chin-bo). The snake fighter wins, but doesn’t have long to celebrate…

Because Fung Sheng Wu Chi shows up right at that moment and beheads the snake fist master. Luckily Yu Tien-lung has already left, having become concerned about attracting too much attention. The bogus monk instead turns his anger on Wu Chang-sang, who is killed. Fung Sheng’s lackey Yakuma even takes the opportunity to kidnap Wu‘s unconscious daughter, the foreign bastard!

Yu Tien-lung, concerned about the safety of his students, reluctantly closes his kung fu school. He fills in his students on the events in One-Armed Boxer, including a nice pink-tinted flashback of him defeating Fung Sheng Wu Chi’s students (Cheung Yee-kwai and Su Chen-ping). But the school doesn’t even have time to clear before Nai Men shows up looking for trouble. He spars with Yu Tien-lung’s number one student (Wong Fei-lung) for a bit before Fung Sheng arrives and everyone is forced to make a run for it.

Yu Tien-lung heads out into the wilderness, where he manages to get Shao-tieh away from Yakuma. Arriving back at the school, Yu finds the yoga master waiting for him. After a bizarre 1-arm vs. long-arm fight Yu kills the Indian, and decides he needs a plan to defeat the rest of his enemies. To this end he and his students lure Nai Men into a small hut with a metal floor and a fire set in a pit underneath. The barefooted Thai boxer is forced to endure horrific burns before finally being killed. Next Yu turns his attention to Yakuma, and being aware of the Japanese warrior’s hidden knives manages to win using a concealed blade of his own. That only leaves Fung Sheng Wu Chi, who requires the most elaborate trap. First Yu uses hard bamboo poles to break the flying guillotine, and then lures his opponent into booby-trapped coffin shop complete with nifty flying axes. Yu employs his Lionel Ritchie dancin’ on the ceilin manoeuvre, but ultimately has to fight Fung in a good old-fashioned kung fu smackdown. Hands up who thinks Yu wins…

Master Of The Flying Guillotine is a strong, gripping old-school kung fu movie. Thanks to legendary Shaw Brothers choreographers Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing, there’s an authenticity to the eclectic mix of fighting styles that helps balance the silly parts (the Indian yogi with extendable arms brings to mind the “find the fish” sketch from Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life). Jimmy Wang Yu was a canny operator who was well aware of his own limitations as a screen fighter, and had a knack for surrounding himself with talented martial artists to allay this. Kam Kong was a great choice for the killer monk – the imposing fighter had a distinguished career in kung fu movies, including early Jackie Chan vehicles Shaolin Wooden Men, Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin and Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, and as the villain opposite Judy Lee in the low-budget classic The Crane Fighter. Despite his large frame Kam was a student of famous taekwondo expert and actor ‘Flash Legs’ Tan Tao-liang, though his roles (normally as a villain) tended to rely on his sheer size rather than kicking skill. His performance in this film is probably the most iconic Kam ever gave, with his ears and fake eyebrows twitching madly as he listens for the guillotine’s next target – Jimmy was clearly influenced by his time on the Zatoichi movie since these mannerisms owe a lot to Shintaro Katsu.

As for Jimmy Wang Yu, he’s just as serious and badass as you would expect. Sure, there are a couple of lighter moments in the movie where you think he might just be about to smile, but of course he doesn’t – Jimmy don’t smile. The tone of the film will come as something of a relief to anyone who thinks old kung fu flicks have too many bonks on the head and falling trousers – OK, there‘s one of those but it comes between a couple of bloody killings. Jimmy’s character is a far cry from the plucky youths of Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung’s films or the stoic monks of Lau Kar-leung; realising he doesn’t necessarily have the skill to defeat Fung Sheng Wu Chi, Yu Tien-lung devises vicious traps for the bad guys more akin to what an old-school villain might devise for the hero’s brother/father/master/dog etc. It’s an interesting change of pace from your typical “Drunken Eagle in the Shaolin Temple vs. Hedgehog Over Wall Kids” kung fu komedy.

The film was a huge grindhouse hit in America, I think largely thanks to the sheer craziness and dark tone that compensated for the areas where the film could have been better – the low-budget production value, the rather obvious arms stuffed inside shirts and the hokey special effects. As for Jimmy Wang Yu, he remains a notorious and enigmatic figure. For a while it seemed like the scandals of his heyday – links to the Triads, brawls, affairs, stealing another guy’s wife and marrying her (heavily pregnant) after the husband killed himself, only for her to leave Jimmy claiming he beat her – were behind him. But it was only last December that Jimmy invaded his latest wife and her boyfriend’s love-nest flanked by the news crews and police he’d called to the scene. Even in his sixties, you don’t f**k with Jimmy Wang Yu.