(1976) Written and directed by Jimmy Wang Yu; Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, Kam Kong, Sham Chin Bo, Lung Fei, Doris Lung Chun Erh, Chui Chung Hei and Wong Wing Sang; Available on DVD
“In China, there are many martial arts fighting books, and also there was a book about martial arts tournaments. Also, many books about its own style of school. I thought it would be fun if I brought all these different elements into one film.” – Jimmy Wang Yu (from 2004 interview)
Back in my junior high school days, there were a handful of movies that were discussed in hushed tones, gaining a reputation of mythical proportions. In most cases, the hyperbolic descriptions of my schoolmates had little correlation with the actual films. One exception, Master of the Flying Guillotine (aka: The One-Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine), enjoyed a reputation that was mostly deserved. It was far from the first “tournament” type film, but it took the competition to outrageously gruesome levels. Writer/director/star Jimmy Wang Yu relied on Japanese films (including the Zatoichi movies and Kurosawa’s samurai films) as inspiration, as well as his previous Hong Kong-based movies.* The independent Taiwanese production didn’t have the gloss of a Shaw Brothers film (Jimmy Wang Yu’s former employers), but what it lacked in flashy production design, it compensated with sheer audacity.
Set during the Qing Dynasty (a frequently used historic backdrop for the Chinese equivalent of the western), the film opens with the chief villain, Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong),* a blind assassin sanctioned by the emperor. His weapon of choice is the titular flying guillotine, a diabolical bladed beanie on a chain, which he wields with deadly precision. When he learns that his disciples have been summarily dispatched by Liu Ti Lung, the One-Armed Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu),** it becomes his sworn duty to avenge them. He embarks on a quest to destroy the One-Armed Boxer. Unconcerned with some collateral damage along the way, he dispatches anyone who seems to match the description of his adversary. Meanwhile, the One-Armed Boxer bides his time as the master of a kung fu school, ignoring an invitation to compete in a grand international tournament. But avoiding conflict can only last so long, as not only the assassin, but the victors of the tournament endeavor to take him down.
* Fun Fact #1: His distinctive theme, as well as the opening title music, is lifted from music by the German rock band Neu!
** Fun Fact #2: Wang Yu cited his title character from The One-Armed Swordsman (1967) as the primary influence for his One-Armed Boxer character, who appeared in four films.
Compared to his flashy competition, the One-Armed Boxer* seems almost humdrum (as long as you ignore his tendency to balance on the edge of baskets and walk on walls). Much like the blind assassin, it’s not about what he lacks, but the almost superhuman abilities he possesses that make him as deadly as they come. He refuses to be drawn into the tournament, instead choosing to observe from the sidelines. Naturally, this affords him the opportunity to assess his future opponents’ relative strengths and weaknesses. Just because the One-Armed Boxer is our nominal good guy doesn’t mean he plays fair. He systematically turns his opponents against themselves, using their vulnerabilities to set traps.
* Fun Fact #3: Depending on the angle of the shot, Wang Yu kept his right arm bound, either in front or behind. This created other problems for the martial arts star, including problems with balance, and his hidden arm turning numb after each hour of filming.
Don’t go into this expecting nuanced, multi-faceted characters (each could probably be described with a few words), it’s all about the kung fu action, as nature and Jimmy Wang Yu intended. The deadly tournament with colorful opponents would be copied again and again over the years, and probably influenced more than a few video games (if not a direct influence on Mortal Kombat, it had to be lurking in the collective unconscious of the game designers). Surprisingly, a Blu-ray is unavailable, and the DVD looks only serviceable. In all fairness, the film opens with a disclaimer that the DVD was mastered from the best surviving elements. Considering the film’s cult status, who knows if a pristine print might be lingering in a vault, somewhere, just waiting to be unleashed?