'MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE'
An Avenger Rampages, and Chop! Chop! Heads Roll (or Rather, Fly)
By ELVIS MITCHELL
You have to have some affection for the near-great "Master of the Flying Guillotine," if only because this summer movie runs a scant 93 minutes in its newly restored original version. The opening credit sequence of this 1975 martial-arts-and-mayhem adventure is almost as long as some of the diced-up versions of it that have been broadcast on television, where it seems to have been edited with a guillotine. (Some truncated edits have been as short as 60 minutes.)
Jimmy Wang Yu, who wrote and directed this lovable, fleet genre picture, which has inspired countless directors, stars as the One-Armed Boxer, who is preparing the students of his martial arts school for a big tournament.
He is being pursued by Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), the blind and deadly, um, master of the flying guillotine, who is determined to avenge the deaths of two of his disciples, whom the One-Armed Boxer killed years earlier. (These deaths are shown in a flashback that includes fake beards and wigs worse than the beard Fung Sheng wears throughout the film, which appears to be made of cat hair.)
As for the flying guillotine, it is like a mesh baggie with a ring of retractable blades around its opening. Fung Sheng tosses it at his victims with the requisite unerring skill, and beheads them so quickly that he'd make Ron Popeil the late-night television slice-and-dice pitchman weep with envy. In his search for the One-Armed Boxer, Fung Sheng decapitates most of the male population of Ching Dynasty China. (His aim may be unerring, but he is blind.)
The remaining male citizens and one lone woman are beaten to a pulp in the preliminaries for the kung fu tournament, whose competitors include a yoga master who defeats his opponents with arms that stretch several yards. (Your suspension of disbelief will have done this long before this sequence.)
The picture moves past the litter of corpses into the final battle between the one-armed kung fu champion and the blind master. This bizarre and utterly compelling tableau is reminiscent of the best scene in "Star Wars: Episode 2 Attack of the Clones," which consists of a light-saber throwdown between a computer-animated elf and an 80-year-old character actor.
For those unfamiliar with "Guillotine," catching this cult demi-epic in its rerelease as it begins a run today in Manhattan will be like discovering a vinyl 45 you've heard sampled your entire life. The pops and clicks from such a low-tech form are a little distracting. "Guillotine" plays in almost stereophonic sound, with a hazy color process that makes it look as if it's been sitting on someone's front porch too long.
But once you find the groove of this delectable cheese fest, you'll realize how influential "Guillotine" has been. Traces of it can be seen in movies from "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to the battle dazzler "The Blade," which is "Guillotine" remade to look like a "Zoom, zoom, zoom" Mazda commercial.
Many of the best-known martial arts video games owe "Guillotine" a debt of honor, too, if not a legal debt from what is known in the West as copyright infringement. Let's not even get into the phalanx of techno and hip-hop songs that have literally sampled from the film's primitive but cool electronic score.
Just know that you'll owe "Master of the Flying Guillotine" for the pleasure you'll get from viewing a venerable example of the kung fu genre at least until the next restored version is released.
MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE
Written and directed by Jimmy Wang Yu; in Mandarin, with English subtitles; director of photography, Chiu Yao Hu; edited by Kuo Ting Hsiung; fight choreography by Lau Ka Liang and Lau Ka Wing; produced by Wong Cheuk Hon; released by Pathfinder Pictures. At the Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 93 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Jimmy Wang Yu (the One-Armed Boxer), Kam Kong (Fung Sheng Wu Chi, Master of the Flying Guillotine), Lung Kun Yee (President Eagle Fist), Lau Ka Wing (Yoga Master), Wang Lung Wei (Win Without a Knife Yakuma) and Sham Tsim Po (Eagle Claw Wu Shao Tieh).