The Flying Guillotine [血滴子] (1975)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Ku Feng, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wu-Chi, Ai Ti, Wong Yu, Lam Wai-Tiu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ricky Hui Koon-Ying, Liu Wai, Lee Sau-Kei, Lee Pang-Fei, Man Man, Wu Chi-Chin, Lei Lung, Lin Wen-Wei, Wai Pak

Directed by Ho Meng-Hua

Expectations: High. Flying Guillotines!

Every one is familiar with the Jimmy Wang Yu classic Master of the Flying Guillotine, but before that film cemented itself into kung fu history, there was Ho Meng-Hua’s The Flying Guillotine. It was Ho’s film that introduced the weapon to the modern martial arts film, and by nature of its story, it also serves as an origin story for the weapon. The flying guillotine was a real weapon used during the Qing Dynasty under the rule of the Yongzheng Emperor (1722–1735). This is roughly the same timeframe that Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films inhabit, although no one knows exactly when the burning of the Shaolin Temple occurred (and there are multiple conflicting stories of various Shaolin temples burning, too!). Anyway, the flying guillotine was apparently a real thing, as crazy as that sounds.

The Flying Guillotine begins in the chamber of the emperor (Kong Yeung), who finds himself desiring a pair of advisors killed off without a lot of hullabaloo. He gives this task to Chief Xin Kang (Ku Feng), who sets about devising a way to assassinate the men quickly and accurately from such a range that no one can identify the killer. While walking down the street and contemplating the job, Xin Kang takes special interest in a man performing with a Diabolo (a Chinese Yo-Yo consisting of a wooden object spun and thrown with a rope). Inspiration strikes and the flying guillotine is born! The emperor loves the weapon so much that he then asks Xin Kang to form a 12-person strike team proficient in the usage of the flying guillotine.

Like its unconventional weapon, The Flying Guillotine is an unconventional martial arts film. Not so much in terms of structure, but how it approaches its martial arts and action elements. Throughout the film (right up to the finale), there are many opportunities for big fights to break out (as they usually do in a martial arts film). At times that impulse is indulged, but more often than not, the fight is merely a short scuffle. This makes the film seem a little light on action, but this reasoning fails to consider the wealth of flying guillotine action that the film throws at us. While it’s not exciting in the same way as a traditional hand-to-hand battle, I can hardly argue with a film titled The Flying Guillotine that goes out of its way to specifically showcase the titular weapon, now can I?

This guillotine action is achieved through a combination of various filmmaking techniques, because honestly… who can really throw that crazy weapon around with any kind of accuracy? The guillotine is thrown in glorious slow-motion so we can see every movement of the chain and every revolution of the guillotine itself. The guillotine flies by wire to hit its targets with pinpoint accuracy. It presumably flies by other methods, too, because I only saw a couple of wires and those guillotines are flying around left and right the whole movie. Anyway, the point of this is to illustrate how this movie would’ve never been possible without convincing special effects, and so director Ho Meng-Hua, who had made FX-focused films for years at this point, is a perfect choice to realize the saga of the flying guillotine.

The action choreography also works hand-in-hand with Ho Meng-Hua’s camerawork to create thrilling action sequences involving the guillotine. When the bladed wonder isn’t flying around the quality of the action suffers some, but not too much because Chen Kuan-Tai is awesome. 🙂 The action was choreographed by Simon Chui Yee-Ang, a veteran choreographer at Shaw whose older style of action is slower and less complex when compared to the other films coming out around this time. What saves and elevates the fights to greatness, though, is how Ho Meng-Hua is able to wring emotion out of them through crosscutting. One particular fight shows Chen Kuan-Tai fending off assassins outside a house where a mid-wife helps a woman give birth. The juxtaposition of these primal images is striking and relentless; it’s impossible not to feel the reality and the immediacy of the struggle in these moments.

The Flying Guillotine is one of Ho Meng-Hua’s best and most effective films. Chen Kuan Tai, Wai Wang and Ku Feng all give excellent, emotionally engaging performances to complement all the wonderful guillotine-aided beheadings the film boasts. Highly recommend if you dig ’70s martial arts movies (and if you’re reading this, that’s probably you! 🙂 ).

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is a non-Shaw for context: King Hu’s The Valiant Ones! See ya then!