Flying Guillotine 2 Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: August 9, 2022
Audio: English and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 88:04
Director: Hua Shan & Cheng Kang
To fight against the evil emperor's reign of terror, outlaw rebel Ma Teng (Lung Ti) joins a group of female freedom fighters; however, she soon finds herself embroiled not just in a battle with enemy forces, but also in with a group leader's torn family loyalties. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
In the annals of legendary martial arts weapons, no sword, spear, staff, or axe can compare to the violent esoteric mechanics of the fabled “flying guillotine.” Supposedly invented during the Qing Dynasty (221 to 206 BC), the flying guillotine was a folding cage attached to a chain that was designed to be thrown onto the head of an enemy. Following a successful lassoing, the chain would be pulled, activating buzzsaw-like blades around the base, severing the victim’s head, and capturing it within the cage for easy retrieval. While most likely not an actual battlefield weapon (in season nine, episode 13, The Mythbusters verified that a thrown, caged, head-severing machine was historically possible, but that it would be too cumbersome to work in a melee situation), the flying guillotine is the type of fantastical armament that some industrious weapon designer probably tried to make and not exclusively the figment of a screenwriter’s imagination. That said, the cinematic potential of the flying guillotine is undeniable, leading to an increasingly outrageous series of films beginning with Ho Meng-Hua’s The Flying Guillotine (1975) made under Shaw Bros., who was still the Hong Kong market’s most dominant production company.
Thanks to purposefully confounding titles meant to trick audiences into watching unrelated movies, it can be very hard to differentiate the flying guillotine-themed films that followed. Jimmy Wang Yu made a sequel to his Golden Harvest hit One-Armed Boxer (1971, released internationally in 1973), titled One-Armed Boxer II in some territories, but is better-known as Master of the Fatal Flying Guillotine in 1976 and advertised as a sequel to Ho’s original. Additionally, Raymond Lui and Success Films made a Taiwanese rip-off, The Fatal Flying Guillotine (1977), which is very easily confused with Wang’s film. Shaw Bros. didn’t produce their own official follow-up until 1978, when they released Hua Shan (aka: Hua Yi-Jung) & Cheng Kang’s Flying Guillotine 2, aka: Palace Carnage. A third Shaw Flying Guillotine movie was released the same year entitled Vengeful Beauty, directed by Ho Meng-Hua, after which the fad apparently burned itself out, eventually to be revived in the ‘90s (Johnnie To’s Heroic Trio ) and 2010s (Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines ).
Shaw Bros. movies were made on the quick to fill theaters for as many showings as possible, but, even by their standards, Flying Guillotine 2 is relentlessly paced and frenetically edited. It hits the ground running and unloads about two dozen characters onto the audience in the first five minutes. It is a direct sequel, so it’s understandable that the filmmakers assume we’ve seen the original film, though the returning characters are completely recast and the first film’s protagonist is an afterthought for the bulk of the runtime. The breakneck narrative can be overwhelming, but the plot is rooted in traditional and oft-told kung-fu espionage tales. You have your evil lords, your rebel plots, your double-crosses, and, of course, your training scene where the hero figures out a new technique to defeat impossible odds.
The larger issue here is that the story switches gears about halfway through to focus on rebel Na Lan (Szu Shih) and her lady warriors’ new plan to infiltrate the Emperor’s royal guard, which grounds the plot, consolidates characters, and makes for a better movie. The thin narrative attachment to the previous entry ends up feeling a bit wasted. The ruthless editing also obscures some of the action during group fight scenes, but Chia Tang’s choreography is tightly knit and fast-paced. Naturally, the sequences involving the guillotines are made with the most care, culminating in the extended climax, where every surviving character comes together in a brutal, blood-splattered showdown.
Since its release in 2011, Dragon Dynasty’s barebones anamorphic DVD has been the best option for fans – either that or a digital rental on Amazon Prime – but now we have a 1080p Blu-ray option from 88 Films. This is another master from Celestial Films, so it more or less matches the streaming version, as well as the studio’s other Shaw Bros. transfers. There are almost always issues with the HD Shaw remasters and, excepting authoring problems, they’re rarely the Blu-ray company or streaming service’s fault, but, also in keeping with other Shaw BDs, the pluses vastly outweigh the minuses. Flying Guillotine 2 has typical issues with DNR and mushy textures, but is among the better such transfers in terms of dynamic contrast, tone, and overall clarity. Cinematographer Chang Te-Wei’s photography sits somewhere between the naturalistic look of some of the studio’s earlier efforts and the stagey, super vibrant look of their mid-’70s/early ‘80s output, so there’s plenty of room for subtlety in the shadows and color combinations.
Flying Guillotine 2 comes with English and Cantonese language dubs, both in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Being a Hong Kong-based studio at a time when Hong Kong was still a British colony, the classic Shaw Bros. movies would have needed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio & subtitle options. A lot of us saw these films for the first time with their English dubs and will want to stick with that, but each of the options here are essentially the same in terms of sound quality (the English option is slightly louder). There’s little buzz and only minor, expected hiss during high-treble moments, specifically those tinny metaling clangs you hear in every Shaw Bros. movie from the period. The score is credited to Chen Yung-Yu, but a lot of it sounds like the library music Shaw tended to recycle throughout the decades. It was probably a mix of the two.
Commentary with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema – 88 Films favorites Leeder, who also works as casting director, stunt coordinator, and producer, and Venema, the director and co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong return for another charming, high-energy track. As in the case of their Flag of Iron (1980) commentary, this discussion is particularly valuable, because there isn’t a lot of information available about Flying Guillotine 2, outside of out-of-print books. Leeder & Venema fill us in on the long, complicated history of the film, which was plagued by production woes from the beginning, explaining its choppy nature and lack of connection to the first Flying Guillotine. They also break down the history of flying guillotines in kung-fu movies, the larger careers of the cast & crew, the often controversial history of Shaw Bros., and share personal stories as long-time fans of Hong Kong action.
Hong Kong trailer
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