There are few conventions in comics as cherished as the gimmick weapon. Trick umbrellas, boxing-glove arrows, loaded boomerangs; these are all accepted and beloved staples of comic book storytelling. The “gimmick weapon” is also a fixture in martial arts films, and the godfather of all kung-fu gimmick weapons is a little piece of nastiness called the flying guillotine, a weapon brought to the height of prominence by the wildly influential classic Master of the Flying Guillotine (A.K.A. The One-Armed Boxer Vs. The Flying Guillotine).
The flying guillotine is kind of like a cross between a killer yarmulke and a yo-yo. It’s a beanie shaped decapitation machine attached to a chain, with sawtooth-edges on the outside rim and a ring of blades around its interior. It can be thrown like a giant throwing star to slice through an opponent’s neck or, if you’ve really got skills, you can throw the beanie over someone’s head like a lethal ring toss. The blades inside then drop down to the victim’s neck, and all you’ve got to do is give a little tug on the chain, and your quarry’s head pops off like a champagne cork. It also folds up to convenient pocket-size. It’s such a handy, obtuse little gadget, one can picture the flying guillotine being hawked by the Manchu dynasty equivalent of Ron Popeil or Billy Mays. “Decapitation is simple and fun with the flying guillotine! Order now and get a free Shaolin super-shammy!”
In Master, the flying guillotine is the trademark weapon of the last assassin-monk of the Ching government. After his disciples are killed by the notorious rebel known as The One-Armed Boxer (Jimmy Wang-Yu), the blind, white-eyebrowed master packs up his killer yo-yo, and, in a move that turns centuries of kung-fu tradition on its head, sets out to avenge his students.
His quarry The One-Armed Boxer is not your typical King-Fu hero either. It’s not just that he has one arm, because, lets face it, in martial arts films a physical disability doesn’t mean much. You’ve got the one-armed swordsman, the Crippled masters, countless blind fighters, including the guillotine wielder in this very film, in the kung-fu world, the term “handi-capable” takes on new meaning. What makes the one-armed boxer unique is the fact that the One-Armed Boxer, ostensibly the hero of the film, is kind of a weaselly cheat.
With a crazy ancient blind dude with a pocket decapitator on the hunt for him, it’s no surprise that ol’ lefty is looking to lay low. Despite the pleadings of his students, he even eschews a martial arts tournament being held in his region. It’s this tournament that is the centerpiece of the first act of the film, and the wildly diverse cadre of exotic fighting masters who assemble for the rumble represent archetypes that have permeated films, video games, and pop culture ever since.
Master is far from the first tournament martial arts film ever made, but it was probably the first to assemble such a flamboyant group of cross-disciplined characters in a single competition. Monkey boxers, Mongolian wrestlers, Chinese stick-fighters, kick boxers, swordsmen, and Malay knife-fighters all seek to do grievous harm to each other in the tourney, making the whole affair a comic book cavalcade of gimmicky styles. Ever wonder what the creators of Street Fighter 2 were smoking when they decided to put an elastic-limbed yoga master in their video game? Well, They may not have been smoking anything. They had probably just seen Master of The Flying Guillotine. With the fights Choreographed by the legendary Lau Kar Leung, every style gets at least a brief moment in the spotlight, and if the bouts seem a bit stiffer and more theatrical than Lau’s later works, they make up for it with ingenuity and, sometimes, absurdity.
The Master is hoping that this tournament will smoke out the One-Armed Boxer. The Boxer, being the stoic type who wishes to avoid conflict at all costs, wisely eschews the tournament. This is not really a weaselly move unto itself. Bruce Lee made a career out of playing the type of hero who would avoid fights at all costs and then erupt in an explosion of face-kicking in the final act of his films. However, the one-armed boxer also has no compunction about letting hapless bystanders get pop-topped by the Master Of The Flying Guillotine by not revealing himself. Because of this, The Master gets so impatient, that he basically shows up in the middle of the tournament and goes on a rampage, throwing smoke bombs and taking heads in a fit of repressed-revenge pique.
The Boxer still does not call The Master out, which forces the master to assemble some of the less-than-savory tournament competitors into a martial arts legion of doom bent on taking down the limb-impaired hero. It’s when The One Armed boxer runs the gauntlet of these martial art meanies that his weaselly side really comes out. The “heroic” fighter basically uses dirty tricks to beat all of his opponents, except for the yoga guy (who also, for some reason, chucks owls at people). He takes advantage of the Muay Thai fighters’ insistence on fighting barefoot, he beats the Japanese fighter Wins-Without-A-Knife by using his own dirty trick against him, and the climactic battle with the master of the Flying Guillotine is an affair that involves bamboo posts, spring-loaded axe throwers and canaries.
Part of the appeal of the old-school kung-fu film that its heroes usually rely on discipline, applied philosophy, and rigorous training to win the day. Western cinema has become heavily reliant on predestined saviors with magic bullets who can disintegrate their nemeses with the flick of their birthright. In kung-fu films, the hero usually has to get his butt kicked a couple of times, and then spend at least a third of the film studying and sweating it out in the gym to defeat his or her opponent. Wang-Yu’s protagonist throws this idea out the window pretty early. Men who rely on Kung fu alone, he tells his students, are not wise men. It’s a bit jarring in a Kung-Fu film but also a nod to Bruce Lee’s philosophy of “the best style is the one that wins the fight”. Then again, beating a barefoot opponent by forcing him to fight on a red-hot metal floor may stretch the definition of “style”.
Master of the Flying Guillotine is the ultimate gimmick Kung-Fu move. The film has so many quirky plot hooks, from the motley cavalcade of exotic fighters, to bamboo-pole duels, to blind fighters with bizarre weapons, you could build a dozen different movies just from concepts in this one film. This makes it not just an action packed film, but a very accessible one for the kung-fu noob, a kind of grand Chinese buffet of off the wall Kung-fu concepts. Of course, if this is your first Kung-Fu flick, it may very well be difficult to find anything else that measures up afterward. This film, in all its crazy, blind-fighting, decapitating, synth-music glory, is legend. Master Of The flying Guillotine deserves to sit beside The Five Deadly Venoms, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, and Fist of Fury as a foundation text of the Kung-Fu Film.