What's happening?!! On this edition of Hai!Karate, we've got a veritable classic in the house for you to be schooled on. That classic is none other than The Flying Guillotine!!! This entry from the Shaw Studios features one of their greatest stars, Chen Kuan Tai. Co-starring veterans Ku Feng, Frankie Wei-Hung, Norman Chu Siu-Keung and a young Wong Yu, this film is directed by Ho Meng Hua with I Kuang on the screenplay tip.
The Flying Guillotine begins in the reign of the Ching Dynasty in China. Emperor Yung Chung(Kong Yeung) despises the Han people. So much so that he's issued a decree demanding death to anyone who opposes him. Two senior officials who intervene on behalf of the Han people are soon marked for death. Emperor Chung charges chief Xin Kang(Feng) with their executions, but not to arouse suspicion. Xin Kang plots and schemes until a child's game gives him the idea for a perfect weapon - the flying guillotine! Xin Kang demonstrates how the guillotine can be used to kill from a great distance. Emperor Chung then tasks him to create a special force of killers to train and use this weapon for his orders. Xin Kang gets together 12 men for this force, and soon his prized pupils turn out to be Xu Shangkun(Wei-Hung) and Ma Teng (Kuan Tai). Shangkun secretly resents Ma Teng all while trying to get in good with Xin Kang. Now in this mix, a fellow assassin Xie Tianfu (Yu)begins to question why the emperor would need such killing machines to keep traitors in line when no one dares oppose him? Ma Teng soon finds himself asking the same questions, wondering about the emperor's tyranny.
Those questions grow louder as Ma Teng begins to see just how corrupt and merciless the emperor really is. His conscience eats at him, and his fears aren't helped by Xie Tianfu's growing status of suspicion and Shangkun's own malicious plots. Ma Teng makes the decision to follow his conscience and defy the emperor; but that decision means Shangkun and the other Flying Guillotines are soon hunting him down!
The Flying Guillotine is one of Shaw Studios' best films of the 1970's without question. I mean, you're talking about a film that gets referenced heavily to this day. Ask the Wu-Tang Clan. And it is so without many fighting scenes involved in the picture. This doesn't mean that the violence is limited. Neither man nor beast is spared from the weapon's wrath; there's a kill count of TWENTY-FIVE here. All in particularly gory fashion to make you get the chills. The film packs plenty of action and suspense and rolls in a way that's compelling. Chen Kuan Tai was in his prime with the studio here, and usually he played the stoic and sometimes brash hero in his roles. Here, he gets to display a tremendous amount of range as Ma Teng, loyal to the empire. Unquestioning. But his morality comes into play, especially when it comes to Xie Tianfu and his ultimate fate. Even as he's on the run and encounters a performer(Lau Ng-Kei)who he eventually marries, the emotional complexity never seems to waver. And it adds to the richness of this film. Ku Feng's own role lets him show his versatility from the obedient to the merciless. Frankie Wei-Hung is at his smarmy best here, playing Shangkun with all the utter GREASINESS he can muster. You really find yourself rooting for his rat bastid ass to get his 20 minutes into the flick. As for Wong Yu, this was one of his more early standout roles. He had come to be a big name thanks to his turn as the lead in The Spiritual Boxer, Shaw's first real 'kung fu comedy'.(Side note: his first ever role was in Deadly Buddhist Raiders, three years prior.) The Flying Guillotine did so well that it not only guaranteed a sequel the next year, but it led to Jimmy Wang Yu making his cult classic Master Of The Flying Guillotine that same year and a subsequent in-house knock-off, The Dragon Missile. For all those lovers of martial arts films, The Flying Guillotine is a must-see and if you have seen it, worth it's repeat value.