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MYSTERY OF THE
Is This Kung Fu Classic Gone For Good?
BILL WOOD | AUGUST 2, 2023
PART ONE: A DISCOURSE IN VIOLENCE
It's on just about every "must see kung fu movie" list out there. It’s widely considered one of the essential grindhouse masterpieces, beloved by everyone from Wu Tang Clan's RZA to Quentin Tarantino. It set the standard for martial arts villains, going as far as to directly inspire the characters of Street Fighter II. Many—including myself—rate it as their favorite kung fu movie of all-time, as well as the finest hour for an actor-director who was an absolute pioneer of the genre. It's rated 90% on Rotten Tomatoes, whatever that means.
And yet this cinematic slice of Grand Guignol has been largely ignored and forgotten for nearly two decades. Where the hell did Master of the Flying Guillotine fly off to anyway?!?
Okay… deep breaths. First some background info, as I’m hoping the amount of knowledge shared here will adequately convey my undying passion for this film. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Shaw Brothers Studios were at the forefront of the increasingly popular movie genre known as kung fu. They found unparalleled worldwide success by moving away from the traditionally graceful wuxia films in favor of filling screens with gruesome hand-to-hand mortal combat. Much of the Shaws' early kung fu glory was delivered by actor Wang Yu, who compensated for his lack of superstar charisma and formal martial arts training with enough angst and fury to annihilate a small army. Together they laid down the foundations that other film companies would build upon, including rival Golden Harvest and their stars Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and ironically, Wang Yu himself.
Long story short: Wang Yu and the Shaws had a falling out. Wang Yu left the Hong Hong-based company and headed to Taiwan to write, direct and star in his own films, which downplayed coherent plotlines, ignored copyright violations and jacked up the violence factor as much as censors would reasonably allow. Derided by critics and adored by fans, his movies lacked the high production values and technical polish of the Shaw Brothers offerings but they damn sure were entertaining, not to mention profitable. Wang Yu—who adopted the first name Jimmy for American audiences—eventually released One-Armed Boxer, a not-so-subtle nod to earlier Shaw-Yu successes such as The One-Armed Swordsman* and The Chinese Boxer. Playing upon familiar motifs (Chinese = good; everyone else = bad) with cartoonish panache, One-Armed Boxer was a smash hit throughout China and the rest of the world, where moviegoers were basking in the glory of kung fu mania.
* Wang Yu—who of course had two perfectly good arms—was more than ready to milk the one-armed martial artist gimmick for all it was worth. Things reach a Python-esque level of absurdity in 1977's Point the Finger of Death, where he casually hacks off his own arm in the opening minutes without so much as a wince, then immediately wipes out an entire band of trained assassins literally singlehandedly.
One-Armed Boxer was a box office triumph... but how to follow it? With a sequel of course! Shaw Brothers Studios already had a Flying Guillotine movie based on a fictional weapon that could remove an enemy’s head at long distance (there is suggestion that there may have been some real-life exploration into the feasibility of such a device, if so it was quickly deemed impractical). Ever the opportunist, Wang Yu saw the potential for a dream match-up, and so One-Armed Boxer vs. Flying Guillotine was born. The movie was retitled Master of the Flying Guillotine when released in the States in 1977, and the rest is history.
What makes Guillotine stand out from the hundreds of kung fu movies released throughout the 1970s? For starters there is the weapon itself. There have been several cinematic iterations of the flying guillotine over the years, but Wang Yu delivers the best version and he isn’t afraid to use it.* From the outset, his vengeful, guillotine-wielding monk-assassin beheads everything in sight, including a live chicken in the opening sequence. The tone is set very early; things are going to suffer and the squeamish need not partake.
* There is another kung fu film starring Carter Wong called The Fatal Flying Guillotines which—as the title suggests—features not one but two flying guillotines. I haven't done a severed head count, but since that movie's guillotine master can wield two at once, one might argue that he is the superior guillotine master. But seriously, how many flying guillotines do you need? If your answer is "you can never have too many flying guillotines," this is me giving you a high-five.
It isn’t long before our decap-happy Lama recruits a rogues gallery of international martial artists, including an arrogant Thai boxer and a Japanese ronin named Win-Without-A-Knife Y. Yakuma (you’ll never guess what his secret is!). You may have heard about the very direct Street Fighter II influence in this movie, and it is a limb-stretching Indian yogi who provides it. None of these foreign heels have any kind of morality check when it comes to aligning themselves with a ruthless Qing assassin, they are getting paid and... well, apparently that's enough. Whether or not this unique cast of villains outdoes the evil assembly of One-Armed Boxer is purely subjective, all I can say is both movies make for one helluva double feature! Of course, Wang Yu shines the heroic spotlight brightest upon himself, walking on walls and ceilings (it's a simple matter of breath control), wooing the ladies, talking tough and kicking the ever-lovin' crap out of every ass in sight with one arm missing (okay, tied behind his back).
A martial arts tournament takes place, and unlike these namby-pamby MMA events they have nowadays, death is an acceptable outcome. As you might imagine, it isn't long before mayhem ensues. Throughout the remainder of the movie, fighters are beaten, strangled, stabbed, decapitated, impaled and roasted alive. In fact, Guillotine isn't so much a feature film as one big ol' series of extended fight sequences. I've heard Shaw Brothers' King Boxer referred to as a "gothic doom opera," but if any kung fu movie is deserving of this distinction then surely it is Wang Yu's wildly unapologetic magnum opus.
PART TWO: IN THE HANDS OF BUDDHA
This brings us to the present. We've had tons of classic kung fu releases on Blu-ray as of late, most of them coming from the incredible Arrow Video. If you're a fan of the genre and haven't seen any of the Arrow releases yet, I strongly urge you to do so. Shawscope Volume 1 and Volume 2 represent the pinnacle of gung fu pian, and apparently there are more coming in the form of Volumes 3 and 4. One-Armed Boxer was released last year to much acclaim, right around the time of Wang Yu's unfortunate passing. So it goes without saying that a Blu-ray release of the (infinitely more popular) sequel is a foregone conclusion... right?!?
Well, not so fast. Apparently there are several roadblocks to seeing Master of the Flying Guillotine get its high-def due, the first being whether or not quality source material even exists that can be remastered in 2K or 4K. I read on one forum that the original pre-print materials were basically destroyed in the early 2000s, a byproduct of duping too many prints from the same source. If true, this virtually eliminates the chance of a proper HD rescan. Keep in mind this is unverified info and that miracles can happen in this digital age of ours.
Let's review the viewing options that currently exist.* There are two different U.S. DVD releases of Master of the Flying Guillotine, both from Pathfinder. The Deluxe Anniversary Edition (2004) is preferred over The Ultimate Edition (2002) for its anamorphic presentation and bonus features. I own both versions, each has quality issues and are on par with early-2000s DVD releases, good but not great. The intro to the Deluxe Edition does explain that the existing 35mm materials were damaged, which seems to corroborate the forum post about those materials no longer being available.
* Just because I've seen folks get this mixed up: There are several "flying guillotine" movies out there, including the Shaw Brothers' The Flying Guillotine and Flying Guillotine 2, and the independent film The Fatal Flying Guillotines. None of these movies have any connection to Master of the Flying Guillotine, which is a direct sequel to One-Armed Boxer.
When it comes to streaming options, every version I've seen (except one, read next paragraph) is digitally compressed and upscaled from a standard-def source. And while it's barely worth mentioning, there are apparently two unauthorized Blu-ray releases on the gray market, the quality of which is anyone's guess... probably not good. If you're a first-time Guillotine viewer and aren't overly concerned with image quality and native language, I'd recommend streaming from Tubi or another free source as the DVDs aren't worth the upgrade unless you're a die-hard fan and want supplemental materials such as bios and commentary tracks.
I did discover that RZA held a screening of a 35mm print at his Flying Guillotine-themed film house in Staten Island (and by the way, how cool is that?). Alamo Drafthouse's streaming service has a version from the same source, "presented in a digital scan of a 35mm print." I bought it and watched it, it's arguably the best-looking version to date even though the visuals are soft and muddy. There's no native language option, which is understandable as it's presumably a scan of a U.S. print. Sadly there are other issues. There are scenes (Wang Yu's wall walking stunt) where the quality degrades and reverts to Mandarin with English subtitles, as well as scenes (the Thai boxer's intro) where footage is absent altogether. The latter is especially unfortunate as the boxer's arrogant attitude is established in that scene, setting the tone for his character throughout the remainder of the film. Even his theme music and ceremonial dance are missing, all of which leads me to believe that a print of the entire film was not available.
In light of everything researched above, the evidence for quality archival materials for Master of the Flying Guillotine does not look good. But I will say this; the fact that Arrow did such a terrific job with One-Armed Boxer is affirming, even if it doesn't guarantee the same can happen with Guillotine.
Another issue when it comes to a re-release is the soundtrack. Die-hard kung fu movie fans will tell you that many of those old-school soundtracks were pilfered directly from other movies and/or recording artists with zero regard for copyright infringement. Understandably, this can make for some real headaches when it comes to a modern re-release. For example, One-Armed Boxer straight up grifted the music from Shaft, all the way down to the trademark wah-wah. In that particular case Arrow negotiated the rights, but in the case of Guillotine, it gets complicated. Songs from Neu!, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk were used without permission in Guillotine, and some of the artists are/were allegedly reluctant to give permission no matter what the circumstances. If you've seen Guillotine then you'll know this movie's soundtrack is absolutely essential to the overall experience. Replacing it with filler material would never do.
Finally there is the issue of distribution rights. There are three major distributors of kung fu cinema on Blu-ray; 88 Films and Eureka Video in the UK and Arrow Video here in the States (you might add Criterion as an outside chance, although that would certainly be stretching it). As far as I can tell, none of these companies currently own the distribution rights to Guillotine.
So is a modern remaster of Master of the Flying Guillotine impossible, or is it imminent? I really can't say for sure, all I can say that it is definitely overdue. If you're a fan and have some factual insight about the circumstances surrounding this very special movie, then by all means e-mail me. I'll append this blog and give you full credit. Until then, I'll be watching my dusty old DVDs with fingers crossed, on one hand anyway. - BW