THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1974)
It is the Ching Dynasty. The Emperor has been routinely using his Manchu officers to oppress the Chinese people, and to kill any who oppose him. When he believes that two of his officers have betrayed him, he instructs one of his slaves to assassinate them. The slave creates a new weapon, the Flying Guillotine, which is thrown at the intended target and instantly decapitates him. The Emperor is so impressed that he creates a small group to master the weapon and uses these soldiers for his purposes.
Ma, one of these warriors, quickly shows his prowess with the weapon and gains favor with the Emperor. But he also has a rival, Xu, who is jealous of Ma. During their first mission, Xie is unable to assassinate his target, and Xu kills him in response. He also frames Ma, who is sympathetic toward Xie, and now Ma is on the run. When Ma arrives at a nearby town, he is aided in his escape from the following soldiers by a street performer, Yu Ping. Together, they escape from village to village, trying to stay one step ahead of Xu and his officers.
After several encounters, in which Ma is forced to use his martial arts and expertise with the Flying Guillotine to protect himself, Xu finally catches up. Ma knows that he can not run any more, and makes his final stand to protect Yu Ping and their son. Now it is guillotine against guillotine, and only one will keep their head!
From the Shaw Brothers studio in Hong Kong, which was the premiere powerhouse of kung fu cinema from the late 1960's through the early 1980's, comes this unique tale about an imaginary weapon. Chen Kuan-Tai, one of the A-list actors in the studio, plays Ma. His performance is what holds the storyline together, and he pays as much attention to the action scenes as he does showing his love for Yu Ping and his reluctance to use his killer training.
The action sequences in the film are a blast to watch, as the guillotines make their mark and splatter bright red blood everywhere. The editing here is a little choppy, but it can be forgiven as it is only through editing that the made up weapon can work and be made believable in the first place. The pacing is a little uneven as well. There is plenty of action in the beginning of the film and builds back up toward the end, but the middle becomes sluggish as the story gets sidetracked with political posturing.
Upon initial release, the film was not very successful, and as such this movie has fallen through the cracks of kung fu cinema. However, the weapon itself became the object of affection for fellow Chinese actor Jimmy Wang Yu, who incorporated it into his much more popular film THE MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1975). It is this movie that would bring about a brief infatuation with decapitation, and led to the demand for the sequel FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978) and the unrelated film THE FATAL FLYING GUILLOTINE (1977).
THE FLYING GUILLOTINE is where it all started though, and is worth watching for the origin of the weapon. It is available from various outlets with the original Mandarin language and English subtitles, as well as an English Dub version.