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The Flying Guillotine (Xue di zi) (Ho Meng-Hua, 1975)

I was speaking with a friend today and he asked about what kung-fu movies I’d enjoyed recently.  The Flying Guillotine, the most recent and best I’ve seen, immediately came to mind, and mentioned to him how much I liked it.  Why, he asked.  A perfectly reasonable questions, and a perfectly answerable one, and yet I had a hard time answering it.  I was vague and stammering.  The power of language seemed to evade me.

There are many distinct, tangible reasons to recommend The Flying Guillotine.  For a kung-fu movie, it’s very narratively driven, and does so with a story and style that recalls not only classic westerns, but also to a certain degree of the man-on-the-run Hitchcock movies like North by Northwest.  These influences are apparent in the narrative, about a warrior who escapes his job of emperor’s elite assassin to live a simple life as a farmer with a kind, resourceful woman he meets while on the run, yet is drawn back into the martial world by the paranoia and backhandness of his former associations.  They’re also apparent stylistically, in the orchestral score and suspenseful chase sequences, as well as the ur-Hitchcockian sequence where the hero’s future wife hides the sounds of his nearby battle with his pursuers from an oncoming crowd by distracting them with a funny song.  Here, the action cuts between the girl playing the crowd, and the hero, battling and ultimately slaughtering his opponents.  It’s a strong, smartly composed sequence.

The Flying Guillotine has supreme exploitation value as well, as its titular weapon is exactly what it sounds like- a mechanical blade on a chain that, when thrown around an opponent’s head, slices his cranium off at the neck and delivers it back to the wielder’s hands in a collapsible basket.  Decapitations occur frequently throughout the film, and they’re no less impressive each time we see one.  The movie does itself a service by not overemphasizing the gore, despite the high level of violence, maintaining a non-gratuitious tone in line with the Western and Hitchcock influences.

I mumbled through these things briefly to my friend, without really explaining much to him, and without really getting at the heart of what I enjoyed about The Flying Guillotine, and why it makes sense that this was one of the more popular Shaw Brothers films in America.  Some of that is the film’s focus- some of the Shaw movies, even the best ones, are all over the place, where this is deliberately plotted and laser focused on the narrative.  Some of it is the tone, which falls somewhere between the hyper-serious (and brilliant) 8 Diagram Pole FIghter and the tawdrier (but also brilliant) Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, instead calling to mind a violent but good-natured 70′s neo-Western, something like a more violent Pocket Money (with Lee Marvin and Paul Newman) or Rancho Deluxe (with Jeff Bridges and Sam Watterston). 

Still, I think what I love about this film, and many Shaw Brothers movies, is something more ephemeral, something I don’t have a name for yet, but it’s a place where unbound imagination, market reality exploitation and passionate, engaged filmmaking converge, although I suppose such a place could simply be called Shaw Studios.

(thanks to dashshaw for actually getting me to think about how I felt about this movie, even if what I actually said at lunch today amounted to “it was cool”)

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