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‘Master of the Flying Guillotine’ (1976) – Movie Review

Today’s cinematic oddity is a cult classic and grindhouse favorite from Taiwan. It also happens to be a sequel, following 1971’s ‘One-Armed Boxer’. Granted, that’s not a particularly snappy title but it certainly lets you know what to expect. The star and director of both films is Jimmy Wang Yu, a notably volatile Chinese born martial arts master whose colorful, controversial and violent private life was frequently the subject of gossip columns in his heyday.

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Despite taking on foes single-handedly, as it were in both these films and 1967’s career-making ‘One-Armed Swordsman’, Jimmy did in fact possess a full set of limbs. His many films were so popular that, prior to Bruce Lee (whom he is often credited with paving the way for), he was the screen’s highest paid martial arts star. Now aged 70, he continues to act and last year received the ‘Best Actor’ honor at the 15th Taipei Film Festival for his role in fantasy movie ‘Soul’.

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‘Master Of The Flying Guillotine’ opens when the elderly and blind Fung Sheng Wu Chi, the titular expert of the airborne head-loosener, receives word via carrier pigeon that two of his students have been killed by a one-armed man. Vying for revenge, the master begins practicing his remarkably undiminished deadly skills by decapitating a number of mannequins. The device itself is difficult to describe. You simply have to see it in action. Some claim that the weapon is based on a real implement used under of the Yongzheng Emperor in the Qing Dynasty, but details are sketchy at best, and attempts to recreate the weapon on Discovery Channel’s ‘Mythbusters’ showed that, as used in the movie at least, the flying guillotine would not have worked. Impracticality aside, posters for the US release described it as ‘the most gruesome weapon ever conceived’. That may be a stretch, but it certainly is one of the most novel. Another tagline was ‘It’s a mean machine – cuts your head off clean!’ There’s no arguing with that one.

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Next we are treated to a display of the One Armed Boxer’s skills (including walking around the edge of a basket) as he trains his own students in the art and the philosophy of kung fu. During this scene he learns that a kung fu tournament is being held at a nearby school, and his awed pupils encourage him to take part. He is uninterested, however, and seems to think that such a contest would cheapen or trivialize his skills. Meanwhile, Fung and his soaring chopper are on the warpath, seeking out his students’ assailant and taking out any unfortunate individual who happens to share his distinguishing feature. But, to the presumable relief of the remaining one-armed population, it is not long before the two nemeses find themselves face to face and the climactic battle begins. The final sequence, which takes place in a coffin maker’s workshop is deliriously exciting and visually stunning. Once again, words cannot do it justice. Quentin Tarantino has named the film as one of his all-time favorites and for any fan of action, thrills and the bizarre, that should be all the recommendation that you need.