The Flying Guillotine (Xue di zi)
Hong Kong (1975) Dir. Ho Meng-Hua
There is something scarily prescient about this mid-70s classic from the Shaw Brothers in that the central antagonist is a egomaniacal ruler who suppresses any dissenting voices against his government by having them killed. Fast forward to 21st century China and well, you can see for yourself…
Manchu Emperor Yung Cheng (Yang Chiang) rules China with an iron fist, terrorising the people and executing anyone who dares voice an opinion against him or his governance. One of his chief advisors suggests that maybe killing every opponent publicly is sending the wrong message to the people and will inflame unrest, and that the Emperor should exercise some discretion instead. So, the Emperor assigns Xin Kang (Ku Feng) to come up with a weapon that will ensure a secret execution.
Xin Kang creates the Flying Guillotine, a metal hoop with metal blades and a hood that can travel over 100 feet and when the chord is pulled, will sever the head. New secret squad is set up to master this new weapon headed by Xin Kang, with an early standout being Ma Teng (Chen Kuan-Tai). But when he realises that they are killing many royal advisors and good men, Ma Teng decides to quit the force. Fearing what he knows, the Emperor calls for Ma Teng to be executed.
Despite being the first film in the somewhat convoluted Flying Guillotine series (see my review of The Vengeful Beauty for more details), this film is perhaps less well known than the ones that followed. Maybe of the handling of the sequels wasn’t such a mess then this could have been the start of something big for Shaw Brothers but it clearly wasn’t meant to be.
Ho Meng-Hua was already a 20-year veteran at Shaw Brothers when he directed this film which might make him something of an odd fit in the post-Bruce Lee era of martial arts cinema but Shaw Brothers had yet to catch up with the new fast paced style Lee had essentially cultivated. Therefore, we have a film that takes its time in telling its story, building layers before the intrigue takes over and the action hits its stride.
Unfortunately, this is exposed as a slight problem in the second half as a time skip of over a year means things are badly rushed, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Much of the first act follows Xin’s development of the titular weapon, inspired by plate spinners and a juggler with wooden toy propelled by strings, but with sharp blades attached and a contractible hood to cover the head.
Whilst it is as ingenious as it implausible, mostly through the precision throwing to make it land on the head, it is difficult not to titter at the cheap SFX that make the guillotines look like 50s B-movie UFOs in flight. But, in the context of this story they are deadly effective and a great gimmick, leaving many headless corpses in their wake for a nice gory visual becoming a motif for the remainder of the film.
But there is more to this story than covert beheadings. During the training sessions, Ma Teng is not the only star cadet, Ah Kun (Wei Hung), Xin’s nephew, is also skilled with the guillotines, but gets jealous at Ma Teng’s rapid ascension to the top and in the eyes of the emperor. These two have a pseudo-friendly rivalry but Ah Kun knows how and when to push Ma Teng’s buttons.
It is during a mission when one of Ma Teng’s friends Xie Tianfu (Wong Yu) is traumatised by the killings and freaks out, forcing another man to do the deed instead. The Emperor hears about this and condemns Xie Tianfu to death which sends Ma Teng over the edge, renouncing his filial oath to the Emperor that everyone takes, hating that he has become a mindless killing machine for a tyrant’s whims.
For this reason, Ma Teng is exiled and also condemned to death, and this sadly, is where the film starts to get a bit silly. Ma Teng walks round the villages despite his face being on wanted posters and Xin’s squad still can’t find him when he is right under their nose! Fortunately, Ma Teng finds an unexpected ally in cute street singer Yu Ping (Wu Chi Liu) whose performances serve as a distraction when the squad close in.
Suddenly, we‘ve jumped to a year later to find Yu Ping is now pregnant as she and Ma Teng are living on a farm, the birth of their son occurring when two squad members happen to be nearby. At least we get the drama of a big fight whilst Yu Ping is giving birth. Then we skip forward again and the baby is now one year old yet the squad still haven’t found Ma Teng, until a coincidental recon proves fertile, and the fighting/fleeing to safety formula continues.
Yet, for all this folly of contrived plotting, rushed narratives, and hokey, physics abusing nonsense, the basic thrust of the moral conflict that drove Ma Teng to become an outlaw is obviously fertile and might have carried the film had it been more of a focus. Martial Arts cinema is a law unto itself and in the 70s when people just wanted thrills, the story often needed to be functional enough to facilitate the fights, so this is more in line with the King Hu approach than regular Shaw Brothers fare.
On the action front, the fights are solid despite Chen Kuan-Tai’s workmanlike skills, but are far more fun when the guillotines are involved. With some of this shot on location, the scope of the fights increases from the usual claustrophobic sets synonymous with Shaw Brothers films, helping the guillotine concept work better than it might have.
Niggles aside, The Flying Guillotine has more to offer than it might initially suggest and viewed through the right perspective, it’s influence on the martial arts genre gradually reveals itself.