02 October 2009

Master of the Flying Guillotine

This is in many ways a typical 70s kung-fu movie, which is to say it's totally rad and a marvelous way to spend a Sunday afternoon. What is curious about this film, other than the fact that it (or the version I had, at least) alternates between dubbing and subtitles, sometimes mid-sentence, is the way the story is told. Explaining this will obviously involve some serious spoiler action, so if you are generally a fan of kung-fu movies and are thinking about watching this one, stop reading now.

So the movie opens with an old man - a blind old man - who we learn is the master of the flying guillotine, receiving word (via carrier pigeon bearing a sort of braille tablet) that two of his disciples have been assassinated by a one armed man. Let me pause here and say that the flying guillotine is not actually a guillotine, except insofar as it is a device that decapitates people. It's actually more like a kind of gnarly teethed hat on a chain that, used properly, separates people from their heads. It's pretty rad in a 70s special affects kind of way. Anyhow, so homeboy finds out his people have been killed and sets off to get revenge. So far, fairly standard, right?

So things first get a bit odd when he arrives in a town and goes to a restaurant for dinner. While he's there, a one armed man arrives and loudly says something to the effect of "I am a one armed man!" upon which the guillotine master does what he does best. People are kind of horrified, and it turns out that this was the wrong one armed man. Our hero, unfazed, says he doesn't care - he'll kill every one armed man he meets! This is a strange moment. It's absolutely hilarious, but it also doesn't quite seem right in the ethical world of kung-fu films. In fact, it's a subtle indication that our hero's moral compass is flawed, leading one to suspect that he might not be our hero at all.

Then we actually meet the one-armed man - the right one, that is - and a whole host of other characters with various fighting skills, which are brilliantly exhibited in a conveniently organized competition. Look out for the go-go gadget armed "Indian", because wow, he is neat.

I won't bother summarizing the whole plot, because it's long and bizarre and doesn't make a lot of sense, but the point being, as the film progresses, we slowly realize that it's actually the one armed man who's the good guy, not the master of the flying guillotine. This shouldn't really come as a surprise, given that Wang Yu has made a whole series of movies about the one armed man, but in the space of this film, and the way it's set up, it's really kind of odd. There's a gradual and subtle reversal of hero and villain, one that's never explicitly stated.

Mostly though, it's just a sweet movie with super cheesy sound effects that are nonetheless totally awesome, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Not a masterpiece of the genre by any means, but an enjoyable film for sure.

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