Master of the Flying Guillotine – Retrospect

by Michael Lauck on December 11, 2010 · 3 comments in Buddhist Blog

In 1975 the world was a very different place. I was only three years old (and no doubt adorable). Gerald Ford was President of the United States and Bill Gates was just starting Microsoft. The Volkswagen Rabbit was introduced in the United States. In entertainment, Saturday Night Live premiered. More importantly to me, the home version of Pong was released and kick started not only the video game craze but probably also the home computer industry as well (something Mr. Gates probably appreciates). It wasn’t the first home video game system, but who really remembers the Magnavox Odyssey anyway? It was the first system that sold big. Most of that really doesn’t have anything to do with martial arts movies, of course, but the universe has a funny way of making connections.

Also in 1975, Jimmy Wang Yu wrote and directed a sequel to his hit film One Armed Boxer. If you look at it under the cold, cruel light of film criticism, it is not a very remarkable set up. First of all, it is a sequel to a hit movie, so you leaning on a the original to gather an audience. In this case, the original film even leans a bit on the success of One Armed Swordsman, the first big film starring Wang Yu. He decided to throw in an opponent using the flying guillotine, a weapon with a dubious historical record that had been introduced to audiences the year before by a successful Shaw Brothers film (aptly titled Flying Guillotine). Drawing on the formula found in One Armed Boxer, Wang Yu decided to pit the main character against a bevy of foreign fighters with strange martial arts powers. After all, that is always an awesome concept and it lets you cheat by relying on nationalism a little bit, at least for your home audiences. So far, Jimmy was putting together a rather formulaic offering, which wasn’t exactly uncommon in 1975 and is hardly uncommon today. After all, you can’t make movies if you don’t make money, so sometimes you have to take the easy shot. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather see a formulaic Wang Yu movie than another remake or TV show brought to the big screen… Alf the Movie? No thanks!

Again under the cold, cruel light of film criticism, Wang Yu’s new movie continues to venture down familiar trails. He decides to center the action around a martial arts tournament, much like previous successes King Boxer and Enter the Dragon. Tournaments let you maximize the action without having to write too much script, particularly when (as in Wang Yu’s film) most of the fighters have nothing to do with the overall story. Another advantage of the tournament film is that it allows you to offer lots of very manageable, one on one fighting and avoid hard to choreograph and shoot group fights. To finish everything off, Wang Yu decides to throw in a cute fighting chick and round out the ‘plot’ with lots of revenge as character motivation. Is anything missing? Add copious amounts of blood and death. Needing a title, the film is dubbed One Armed Boxer 2, One Armed Boxer vs. Flying Guillotine or Master of the Flying Guillotine, depending on where it is released. Stirring this all together, common sense tells us that we now have a thoroughly unremarkable martial arts film, one of the approximately 800,000 that seemed to come out in the 1970s.

Even though on paper the odds are against Master of the Flying Guillotine, Wang Yu’s collection of familiar plot elements somehow manages to create magic. I am not saying this lightly, either. I’m talking about real, Lionel Richie Dancing On The Ceiling style magic! Even hampered by terrible translations in most releases in western countries, Master of the Flying Guillotine connected with audiences. It really is the perfect mix of popular features and it has the advantage of fairly well shot fights. I have no scientific evidence to back this up, of course, but I am pretty sure that more people, especially casual and occasional viewers, remember seeing Master of the Flying Guillotine than either One Armed Boxer or the other Flying Guillotine films. Why?

Now, that is a hard question to answer. I think that it is partially because Wang Yu hit on the perfect balance of choreographed martial arts and kung fu super powers. Sure, the One Armed Boxer is so incredibly hardcore he can walk on walls and ceilings but his main attributes are being incredibly tough and incredibly smart. In fact, his Spiderman like superpowers are thrown in almost as an afterthought and are never used in the movie, even when he is fighting on an almost red hot floor! The vengeful flying guillotine wielder is blind, so between that and his head chopping weapon of choice, he is bad enough without getting any crazier. His Muay Thai kicking henchman is vicious and tough without being over the top. The mysterious Japanese fighter uses Lone Wolf style trick weaponry, while hiding under the familiar black coolie hat. Only the yogi master, with his arm stretching attacks, is comic book fodder. In the grand thing of schemes, though, he is just the warm up villain. That’s a smart choice by Wang Yu because it keeps the movie grounded, well at least as grounded a kung fu movie with superpowers can be!

Another smart choice by Wang Yu the director is the overall style of the film. In many ways it has more in common with spaghetti westerns than the low budget “chop socky” flicks of the ’70s. This makes the movie much more accessible to audiences in the US, and probably even Europe, because it has a familiar feel. It also works with Wang Yu’s personal acting style, which is heavily reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s scowling Man With No Name.

At the end of the day, Master of the Flying Guillotine gives us a super tough, taciturn hero, a cute girl with mad kung fu skills, a dark samurai under a wide hat, a crazy mean Muay Thai stylist, a blind vengeful monk throwing a flying guillotine that looks like a razor blade brimmed hat and an arm stretching Indian fighter. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Without ever realizing it, Wang Yu laid down the formula for one of the greatest genres in the history of button mashing: the tournament fighter. There is no greater evidence of the pure awesomeness found in Master of the Flying Guillotine than the fact that a decade later it would spawn dozens of video games such as Street Fighter II, Eternal Champions, Pit Fighter and Virtua Fighter. Of course, since the film was released the same year as Atari released the home edition of Pong and unleashed the worldwide phenomenon of video games there was no way Wang Yu (or probably Bill Gates, either) could ever even guessed that his movie would shake up an industry that barely even existed. Like I said, the universe has a funny way of making connections.

The great irony is that now there are movies based on these video games. Street Fighter, The Legend Of Chun Li, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat Annihilation, DOA, Tekken and King Of Fighters are all descendants of The Master of the Flying Guillotine. The sad thing is that while the past 35 years have seen the video games evolve and grow so far beyond a blip bouncing between paddle controlled lines, the film industry has not managed to evolve quite as quickly. Even with the advantage of new technologies, few of the video game based tournament movies can even hope to compare with Jimmy Wang Yu’s masterpiece and none of them will be as influential. It really makes me wonder what would happen now if Wang Yu set out to create a video game.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

KUNG FU BOB December 24, 2010

Hey Michael, that was a very enjoyable read brother! A classic film that never gets old, with one of my favorite villains in the genre. Kam Kong is fantastic as the blind killer in a monk’s robe.

I look forward to your next article.

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Michael L. December 13, 2010

Thanks… I’m trying to decide what to hit next. Maybe Cannonball Run.

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Athena December 12, 2010

At the END OF THE DAY & in THE COLD CRUEL LIGHT OF CRITICISM : Very very COOL & RETROSPECTIVE article you wrote Flying Master Michael L !! The “wild & wacky” (!) comment you wrote about me needing to wait, with the PRAISE till AFTER I had read your stuff proved soundly unfounded !

We ARE VERY HAPPY YOU ARE HERE !

XieXie, Athena..♥

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