Master of the Flying Guillotine DVD

You gotta take your hat off to this new ultimate DVD edition

There were a number of martial arts pictures made during the 1970s around one of the strangest weapons of warfare ever created, the Flying Guillotine. Basically a heavy hat on a light chain, it was thrown over a victims head, after which a section would drop down and with a flick of the wrist, blades would converge inside and neatly nip off the victim’s noggin. Shaw Brothers started this mini craze  with The Flying Guillotine in 1974.

Jimmy Wang Yu became a star playing the character One-Armed Boxer in a series of films (starting with One-Armed Swordsman in 1967, made with Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung), and here borrows the Flying Guillotine concept for a new adventure, a sequel to his One-Armed Boxer.

As the previous Guillotine movies established, in the 18th Century, Ching Dynasty Emperor Yeung Chang commissioned an elite group of warriors to master the exotic weapon. Their purpose was to hunt down and kill Ming rebels, many of whom had learned kung fu at Shaolin Temple. Blind Fung-Sheng Wu-chi (Kam Kong) is one of these Masters of the Flying Guillotine, though his is an innovative collapsible model! At his mountain retreat, Fung receives word that the One-Armed Boxer has killed his disciples Chow-lung and Chow-fu, and swears vengeance, intending to kill every one-armed man he comes across. But getting revenge won’t be easy. As is established in some early training sequences, his famous opponent Yu Tieh-lun is a great master despite his lost limb, who has such perfect breath control that he can walk on walls and ceilings!

The One-Armed Boxer series often included a martial arts tournament, and this one is no exception – often considered among the greatest of the tournament movies. Wu Chang-sheng (Chui Chung Hei) of the Eagle Claw School holds a martial arts tournament, and all of Yu’s students want to enter. Knowing it could be meant to draw out rebels, Yu only allows his students to go as observers. Fung is sent as an observer, too, and hires various fighters to help kill any rebels flushed out by the tournament. The first match of the contest is rather ordinary, with fighter Chang Chieh-yu (Lau Kar-Wing) beating his opponent with a pole. But then things start to look like a Mortal Kombat video game, and bodies pile up.

Wang Chiang vs. “Win Without a Knife” Yakuma (Lung Fei) from Japan!
Braided Hair Cheung Shung-vee vs. Mongolian wrestler Tieh Cheng!
Daredevil Lee Sen vs. Iron Skin Niu Sze!
Wu’s daughter Shao-tieh (Doris Lung) vs. Monkey Boxer Ma Wa-kung (Wong Tai-lung)!
Javanese So Leung vs. Flying Rope Chao Wu – fighting atop posts and swords!
Tornado Knives Lei Kung vs. Yogi Tro La Seng (Wang Wing Sheng)(who can extend his arms)!
Tiger & Crane Fists Lee Kun-man vs. Thai Boxer Nai Men (Sham Tsin Po)!
One-Armed Snake Fist Hsien Hsing vs. Praying Mantis Tung Erh!

With this last match, Fung is like a bull spying a red flag, tossing his weapon out to snatch the head off the one-armed winner (maybe you could see his other arm pop out of his shirt during the fight, but Fung can’t!). When Wu objects, Fung kills him and sets fire to everything. Not exactly the life of the party, this one. Fearing the deaths of many innocents, One-Armed Yu decides to close his school and hide out. Too late – Thai Boxer Nai Men leads Fung to his prey. Yu finds that Fung and his Guillotine are out of his league and runs away. But he comes back with a plan to first get Nai Men out of the way (by giving him a hot foot!), then take on Fung using some special equipment of his own.

With brothers Lau Kar-Leung and Lau Kar-Wing creating the fight choreography, the action becomes a concert of meshing fighting styles, breathtaking athleticism, and ingenious techniques. Though Wang Yu was a huge star in the East, and even developed a following in America, he’s not known as one of the best martial artists. However, with the Laus calling the shots, he looks mighty good. The best kung fu movies mix fantastic displays of acrobatic and fighting ability with exotic and entertaining ideas, and this one fills the bill beautifully.

This release restores at least 12 minutes of footage that have never been seen in U.S. editions. Over the past 25 years, much footage has also been trimmed from prints that have been used for previous cropped video and TV editions, so this restoration is a major boon to kung fu fans. The image still has some stains and speckles, but is a vast improvement over the scratched-up mess seen in all previous releases. Both English and Mandarin audio tracks are available, though since no English dub was found for some footage, subtitles are provided.

Master became a hit at U.S. grindhouses on release, mainly due to an aggressive trailer and TV spot campaign (“Filmed in Super-Cine Vision!”), and a rerelease in 1977 did respectable business as well, up against a movie called Star Wars. Both U.S. and Chinese trailers are included on the disc. A commentrak by critics Wade Major and Andy Kline places the film in context and discusses a bit about the star, and Hong Kong cinema in general. There’s a gallery section of a dozen images, though the ones you’d like to see better are presented too small to get a good look. Also included are text biographies and filmographies for Jimmy Wang Yu and Lau Kar-Leung, which are more extensive than most such pieces found on DVD.

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