"Master of the Flying Guillotine" has been called the Holy Grail of the Hong Kong martial arts movies of the '70s, and now that it has been lovingly restored and given a regular theatrical release, it's easy to see why.
Aside from a couple of jaw-dropping leaps, this brisk, action-filled period thriller celebrates the combatants' mastery of style and technique and endless ingenuity rather than razzle-dazzle special effects. Don't expect its kung fu virtuosos to fly through the air like birds in flight.
The leader of the Eagle Claw school of martial arts (Lung Kun Yee) has announced that a tournament will be held in a quaint mountain town. The year is 1730, and the Manchu's Ching Dynasty has just brought the Han's long Ming Dynasty to an end. Not surprisingly, there is some resistance on the part of the Han people to their Manchu conquest, and the Emperor has recruited Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), the blind Master of the Flying Guillotine, to put down any rebellions.
The Master has assumed the guise of a bearded high lama while devising his Flying Guillotine, a convex disk that looks like a small umbrella but when hurled expertly, lands on a victim's head, immediately decapitating him with its circle of retractable blades. The Master looks upon the tournament as a chance to avenge the death of his two disciples, killed by the One Armed Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, who also wrote and directed the 1974 production).
The One Armed Boxer, a Han rebel who runs his own martial arts schools, is a reflective man who thinks before he acts. He views martial arts as a spiritual discipline that is an expression of wisdom and bravery. Slim, young and handsome with a quiet but firm demeanor, the One Armed Boxer may prove a more formidable adversary than the Master expects.
Wang Yu, as busy as ever in front of a camera, directed nine highly regarded martial arts films between 1970 and 1976 and has played the One Armed Boxer numerous times. "Master of the Flying Guillotine" was seen in the U.S. by only a small number of martial arts fans in an English-dubbed bootleg video called "One Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine," which also had some airings on American TV.
While "Master" has the largely one-dimensional characters and declamatory acting typical of the genre, it displays terrific energy and visual bravura. Its superb choreography is by Hong Kong cinema legend Lau Kar Leung, also known as Liu Chia-Liang, assisted by Lau Ka Wing.
Restoration of "Master of the Flying Guillotine" represents a seven-year labor of love. It was well worth the effort, for it is a gem of its genre.
MPAA-rated: Unrated. Times guidelines: the martial arts violence emphasizes virtuosity over bloodshed and therefore is acceptable for older children.
'Master of the Flying Guillotine'
Jimmy Wang Yu...One Armed Boxer
Kam Kong...Fung Sheng Wu Chi,
Master of the Flying Guillotine
Lung Kun Yee...Head of the Eagle Claw
school of martial arts
Wang Lung Wei...Win Without
a Knife Yakuma
A Pathfinder Pictures presentation, in association with Epoch Entertainment of a First Films production. Writer-director Jimmy Wang Yu. Producer Wong Cheuk Hon. Cinematographer Chiu Yao Hu. Editor Kuo Ting Hsiung. Fight choreographers Lau Ka Liang, Lau Ka Wing. Costumes Chao Ken. Music Chen Hsun Chi. Sets Chao Kang Hing. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 655-4010.