Not to be confused with the more popular Master Of The Flying Guillotine (as if you would…), which cheekily hijacked the titular device despite not being an official follow up, The Flying Guillotine is yet another esoteric, plot heavy and utterly fascinating bit of Kung Foolery from the legendary Shaw Brothers studio. Bizarrely enough, the studio failed to capitalize on what turned out to be an oddly popular concept and was scooped by another company who stuck the multi-bladed murder machine in other movies for the entertainment of beheading fans everywhere.
And yet, this is arguably where it all began, with Meng Hua Ho’s head-lopping classic that suprises as much with it’s substantial plot as it does with it’s crazy cranium cutting antics.
As per usual for a Shaw Brothers gig, it’s the 18th century and the land is ruled by the extraordinarily Emperor, who I must also add is a massive bellend. Petty, cruel and incredibly manipulative, the Emperor grows gradually more pissed about the dissent that is growing among his followers and desides that he wants them killed, but doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s responsible (talk about having your cake and killing it…). He calls upon faithful servant Xin Kang to create a method of assassination that can kill from a distance and that will leave no evidence of the culprit, but as it’s far too early for the man to invent the Barrett M82 sniper rifle, Xin Kang invents the ludicrous Flying Guillotine, a sort of bladed frisbee that drops a basket over your head and decapitates you with the yank of a chain. The Emperor is delighted with the contraption – although I would have named it the Decap-o-matic, but that’s just me… – and orders that Kang forms a crack troop of about two dozen men and trains them in the use of the Guillotine until he has a secret special forces unit skilled in the act of mysteriously pulling the heads of people.
Cooped up together, bestest buddies Ma Teng and Xie Tianfu seem naturally gifted with the weapon that’s as practical as a square wheeled unicycle and start getting gifts of gold and women from the Emperor who is spying on their every move. This stirs the greed of the the jealous Xu Shuangkun who feels he should be getting his fair share of bling and poontang and so he immediately starts plotting against them and spreads the seeds of mistrust.
All seems to be going well, if you count the Emperor ordering the decapitation of everyone who even remotely disagrees with him “well”, and everyone who has been targeted is dutifully made about 9 inches shorter by the shadowy squad, but Shuangkun’s plan starts to bear fruit when he suggests to the Emperor that rival Xie Tianfu has been talking smack about him. Paranoid that his gang of master assassins might one day turn against him, the Emperor orders the young man and his concubine be killed which in turn makes Ma Teng realise that maybe their master isn’t maybe that stable of a guy and decides to flee.
Thus a chase begins that elapses over several YEARS, as Teng occupies his life by squeezing in getting married and having a son between occasionally having to dodge razor sharp, spinning blade every so often. How long can Teng realistically stay one step ahead of the wielders of the Flying Guillotine and a pathologically greedy Ah Kun before fate literally cuts him off at the neck?
Feeling far longer than it’s hour and forty minutes suggests, The Flying Guillotine is a fascinating watch; far more interested in it’s winding, rambling plot than it is with intricately choreographed fight scenes, this ever changing and evolving tale ends up being legitimately gripping as random occurrences and muderously dirty tricks literally slice through the cast like a scythe through wheat.
Straddling themes like how far should your loyalty stretch when serving under a dictatorship (interesting point of view for a film made in China) and whether you should fling a murder-frisbee under-arm or over for the best effect, the story is remarkably complex considering it’s just a film about a dude on the run but also manages to be crazy enough to stand out from the pack.
This of course brings us to the assassin’s tool in question, a gadget so hilariously complicated to use and so clumsily realised on film it can’t help be anything but super badass. It’s a testament to how invested you are in the plot, not to mention how endearingly silly the Flying Guillotine truly is that they both don’t collide and upend the whole deal. The Kung Fu is a sprightly as you’d come to expect but the real fun is the startlingly frequent beheadings that somehow never get dull – bodies thrash wildly after literally popping their top and it’s oddly satisfying everytime the surprisingly noisy Guillotine is put into effect (seriously, should an assassin’s weapon really be that loud?).
Things are eventually wrapped up in it’s utterly bonkers finale where the expansive plot finally narrows to a point where Ma Teng invents a spikey killer umbrella to counter the Flying Guillotine which only works once and then immediately breaks (I’d hold off on that patent if I were you, Teng), and then sees everyone not killed by Xu Shuangkun’s relentless Kung Fu treachery (seriously, the man cannot help himself) scrap to the death on a waterfall.
Another hidden example of the genre being much, much more than just awesome fights and not a lot else, The Flying Guillotine is fast, furious and brings new meaning to the adage If you can keep your head, when all around you are losing theirs….