Director: Ho Meng Hua
Producer: Runme Shaw
Cast: Chen Kuan Tai, Ku Feng, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wu Chi, Ai Ti, Lin Wei-Tu, Wang Yu, Li Peng-Fei, Li Shou-Chi, Lu Wei, Lin Feng, Shen Lao, Chiang Ling, Wu Chin-Chin, Hsu Kuan-Ying, Lei Lung, Ho Han-Chou
Running Time: 101 min.
Flying Guillotine is not a kung fu movie. Tell yourself that before watching it, and you might not be let down, because those expecting an old-school basher are going to be disappointed. Flying Guillotine is more of a historical epic with horror and kung fu overtones. The producers take the campy material and for the most part play it straight; therefore, this movie is about as far as you can get from a Chang Cheh piece.
Chen Kuan-Tai is among a squad of elite commandos chosen by the emperor to master the flying guillotine, a new killing device, which was created by the emperor’s adjutant, Ku Feng. The movie almost takes on aspects of a war film, as we see the men in a boot camp environment, going through drills. Here friendships and rivalries bloom; particularly, a nasty feud develops between Chen, the top soldier, and Frankie Wai, who unbeknownst to the others is a spy for the emperor.
Eventually the squad is sent out on a few assassination missions, each of which take place in the dead of night, the commandos in their cool black uniforms running silently across rooftops. Kuan-Tai soon realizes that the men they’re killing are all high-ranking, respected officials who have dared to speak out against the emperor. The bastard is using the squad to quietly rub out all those who disrespect him. When a fellow squad member figures this out, and also how omniscient the emperor seems to be, he freaks out, and it’s only a matter of time until he becomes a squad target. Frankie Wai meanwhile sets Chen up to be the next victim of the squad, intimating to the emperor that he’s a traitor. Chen is informed of this by a fellow squad member still smart enough to question his superiors, and so Chen gets the hell out of town.
While on the run, he encounters a young, attractive street performer, who helps him evade his cronies, who are now in pursuit. In one of those life-changing decisions characters make without a second’s thought in old-school movies, Chen decides to marry this girl and run off into the woods with her, to live out a life of anonymity. Crazy thing is, it actually works, and they get several months of peace. We catch up with them, living in a small farming community, on the night Chen’s wife is about to give birth. In a great dramatic twist, a few of Chen’s former teammates finally locate him, and launch an attack while his wife’s giving birth. Chen takes them on in fury, barely escaping their guillotines.
Chen and his wife and new son move off again, and this time they actually get two whole years of respite. The squad continues to hunt him, more determined than ever. In particular, Frankie Wai wants him dead. The squad member who warned him earlier is the first to find Chen, and tells him all that’s happened in the past two years. While they’re talking, Frankie Wai sneaks up, tears the dude’s head off with his guillotine, and gets in a quick fight with Chen before running away.
Sending his family off, Chen goes to a blacksmith and devises a weapon to counteract the guillotine. Basically, it’s a metal umbrella. Mere moments after a couple prototypes are created, Chen’s attacked by a few squad members. The umbrella proves effective, but he’s able to get hold of a guillotine himself, and proves fatally to his former mates that he’s just as deadly with them as ever. Now the stage is set for a final standoff between Chen and Frankie Wai, the last squad member standing.
The Flying Guillotine pays more attention to plot, character interaction, and drama than your normal old-school movie. In many ways, this film resembles something from director Liu Chia-Liang, except that whereas Liu generally avoided having carbon cut-out villains in his film, director Hoh Mung-Wa makes Frankie Wai and the emperor pure evil. You love to hate both of these guys, and they both pull off their roles well. Chen Kuan-Tai is the emotional heart of the movie, and it’s refreshing to see a kung fu film with a hero who’s more concerned about his wife and child than his honor. Lau Ng-Kei, who plays Chen’s wife, is also great throughout, able to provide spunk, as in the scene in which she sidetracks the squad members searching for Chen, as well as scenes of heartbreaking emotion. Ku Feng is, as always, great in his role, making his nervous character worthy of both hate and pity.
The violence level is high, although there isn’t that much blood. Tons of people are beheaded, and usually all we see is the corpse flopping around afterwards, legs kicking spasmodically. It’s pure camp fun. Costuming is impeccable, but instead of the Chang Cheh-type kung fu garb, everyone wears more traditional and historically-accurate Ching-era wardrobe. The sets are the usual Shaw Brothers impressive, especially the outdoor scenes of the city during the nighttime raids. What little kung fu that’s featured unfortunately isn’t that great, falling squarely into the “clumsy” category.
Flying Guillotine was a huge success, and plans were instantly formed for a sequel. However, problems arose between Hoh Mung-Wa and the Shaws, which resulted in him leaving the project, as well as the majority of the actors in this film. Ti Lung stepped in to take over Chen Kuan-Tai’s role, and Ku Feng took over the role of the emperor. But that’s a story for another review.
Joe909’s Rating: 7/10