Hello again, friends, I hope you are bearing up in the current circumstances. Interesting times, right? Apparently I was a bit premature in breaking out the late-period Carry On films quite so early in the ongoing emergency (apparently things have got to get a good deal worse before we become eligible for Sid James and Kenneth Williams) and so on this week I will be looking elsewhere for films you might want to consider watching to pass the long, long days.
Made in Taiwan
As promised, we launch our new strand Obscure Treasures of the Internet with a look at Jimmy Wang Yu's classic 1976 film Master of the Flying Guillotine. Wang Yu is a pivotal figure in the history of the kung fu movie, at one point the highest paid actor in the genre, and in some ways the precursor to the much more famous Bruce Lee. Legal issues meant he ended up making many films in Taiwan rather than Hong Kong, such as this one.
Master of the Flying Guillotine is actually the sequel to an earlier Wang Yu movie, One Armed Boxer, but you don't need to know anything about the plot of that film. This is because the plot is more than usually dispensable. We are in 18th century China, where the Ming or Ching dynasty is on the imperial throne (the subtitles are not entirely clear on this). Dreaded imperial assassin Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), who is blind, in his sixties, and hasn't had a haircut in decades, learns that two of his pupils have been killed by a mysterious one-armed martial arts expert (Wang Yu, with his right arm stuffed down the front of his shirt). Pausing only to collect his grisly weapon, the flying guillotine (this looks like a beanie hat on the end of a length of bathroom chain), Fung leaves his home (by jumping through the roof) and sets off in search of revenge.
Meanwhile, the One Armed Boxer and his students have been invited to a prestigious martial arts tournament, but he decides they are only going to spectate, not participate. Present are various locals, plus some interesting foreign entrants, including an untrustworthy Japanese fighter (Lung Fei), a Thai boxer who looks like Charles Bronson (Sham Chin-bo), and an Indian yoga expert with telescopic arms (Wong Wing-sang). Who needs plot with a set-up like this? So the film-makers basically put the story on hold for twenty minutes and just show half a dozen or so wacky and varied kung fu fights.
However, it turns out that one of the contestants is a one-armed man (this film suggests a surprising number of martial artists in 18th century China only had one arm, or at least were happy to spend their time with one arm stuffed down the front of their shirt), and this lures Fung out of hiding. Soon he and his foreign henchmen are menacing our hero and his friends – will the skill and cunning of the One Armed Boxer prove equal to the terror of the flying guillotine?
Western kung fu films are often quite tedious and predictable and deal with taciturn muscle-bound chaps whacking seven bells out of each other in garages and warehouses, so it is a pleasure to be reminded of how they do this sort of thing in Asia. The thing to bear in mind, I always think, is that the real western counterpart to the Asian kung fu movie is not the western martial arts movie, but the musical, albeit a musical where all the song and dance sequences have been replaced by choreographed violence. Characterisation is of secondary concern. So is plot. All you're really worried about are the big production numbers.
And here Master of the Flying Guillotine delivers in spades. Yes, the plots and situations are deeply absurd, and the realisation of some of the ideas is ridiculous, but the film is filled with energy, imagination, and inventiveness (it also features a surprising amount of krautrock on the soundtrack). You do have to get used to some of the special features of the genre (wobbly film stock, post-synched soundtrack, and wildly erratic subtitling) but I think this really just adds to the fun of it all. Had it not been for the current situation I doubt I would ever have come across this film – so there is at least one tiny positive thing to be said about it.
Games People Play
Also as promised, we continue with our Next Best Thing strand. Another film I was planning on watching before all the cinemas closed was The Hunt, a horror film about liberals hunting and killing conservatives for fun that proved so provocative it even managed to upset the famously tolerant and even-tempered Donald Trump. The premise, of course, is very far from a new one, and the daddy of the whole hunting-people-for-fun sub-genre is Irving Pichel and Ernest B Schoedsack's 1932 adaptation of the short story The Most Dangerous Game.
The movie opens on a ship in the Pacific, where big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) is enjoying the trip and fielding questions from his companions. How can a civilised man justify hunting? Well, says Bob, I'm pretty sure the animals often enjoy it. Well, then Bob, would you want to swap places with one of them? Ha-ha, says Bob, there are two kinds of people in the world – the hunters and the hunted, and I'm always going to be one of the former.
Well, as long as you're sure, Bob: due to some suspiciously misplaced navigation buoys, the ship sinks and he is the only survivor, washing up on a remote island which belongs to Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), an exiled Russian aristocrat. Zaroff has heard of Bob, being a keen huntsman himself, and when not extending hospitality to the shipwreck survivors who arrive on his island with suspicious frequency, he spends all his time out in the hunting preserve he has established.
Bob gets to know his fellow guests (played by Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong) but it soon becomes clear is that his good fortune is strongly qualified: being gored in the head by a buffalo has driven Zaroff mad, and the only kind of hunt he now finds appropriately challenging involves human quarry…
There have been so many films and TV episodes based around this particular idea that you could be forgiven for expecting this to be another example of the original having been improved upon in every department. It is true that The Most Dangerous Game features early-1930s acting and production values, but it still stands up remarkably well for a film of this vintage. There is unexpected subtlety in the script and some of the action sequences remain genuinely thrilling.
The only thing which really lets the film down is the pacing, coupled to the fact this was a supporting feature – it's only just over an hour long, and once all the exposition and set-up has been done, there's only twenty minutes or so left for the actual hunting sequence. Nevertheless, it fits neatly into the development of Hollywood genre cinema in the 1930s, coming between 1931's Dracula (eastern-European noble preys on nice westerners) and the following year's King Kong (trip to the Pacific goes awry). The connections with Kong are particularly strong, of course: Wray and Armstrong play two of the lead roles, it has one of the same directors, and the two films shared some of the same sets. It doesn't have quite the same iconic status, but just as King Kong inaugurated the Hollywood special-effects movie, so The Most Dangerous Game is clearly an early example of the high-concept action movie. Less likely to upset Trump, of course, but you can't have everything.
Next week: Assuming that the Carry On crisis event horizon has not been breached, I thought we'd do a (cue the music) Science Fiction Double Feature, so I will be writing about two cult films from that genre: David Cronenberg's Videodrome and Georgiy Daneliya's Kin-Dza-Dza! Until then, stay safe and stay sane.