The Shaw Brothers’ 1975 film The Flying Guillotine was a great success and spawned a complicated series of sequels and rip-offs. The studio were slow in making their own official follow-up, Flying Guillotine 2 : Palace Carnage (1978), after troubles on set and a change of director half way through the shoot. This opened the doors for Jimmy Wang Yu (The Chinese Boxer, One Armed Boxer) to get one over on his former studio and make his own unofficial sequel, Master of the Flying Guillotine. A cheeky Taiwanese knock-off, Fatal Flying Guillotine (1977) even snuck in before Palace Carnage was eventually finished. The director of the first Flying Guillotine film, Meng Hua Ho, had the final word though and capped off the loosely related collection of films with The Vengeful Beauty in 1978. There was a remake in 2012, but by all accounts it was a bit of a disaster, so we’ll ignore that. Like most Shaw Brothers films, The Vengeful Beauty has been hard to get hold of in the UK for a long time, but 88 Films have added it to their impressive 88 Asia Collection and I got hold of a copy to cast my critical eye over.
The Vengeful Beauty is a period piece set in a time when Emperor Yung Cheng (Hung Wei) pretends to run China peacefully, but secretly orders the assassination of anyone even remotely questioning his rule as well as their families and associates. These murders are done by the highly trained flying guillotine squad, who use their spinning blade/hood contraptions to behead people from a distance. Han Tien-Te (Sung-Ling Li) is one of their victims and when his wife Yung Chiu-Yen (Ping Chen) returns home to find him dead, she heads to find the squad leader, Chin Kang-Feng (Lieh Lo), and exact revenge. She’s a highly skilled martial artist and is close to defeating Chin soon after, but is pregnant and vowed to her husband that she’d protect their child at all costs. She instead goes into hiding to plan how best to kill Chin at a later date.
Along the way, Yung meets and is helped by Wang Chun (Hua Yueh), an old flame who trained in martial arts with her, and Ma Shen (Norman Chu) a flying guillotine squad defector who’s also on the run from Chin and his goons. Both men have more than a passing fancy for Yung, which causes complications. The trio however work together to fend off regular attacks and find a way to get close to Chin, who in the meantime sends his 2 sons and only daughter to kill them.
I watched the first Flying Guillotine film in preparation for this and I’m glad I did. It’s not vital as the stories aren’t particularly well connected, but it meant the potentially confusing rush of information at the beginning of the film about the Emperor’s methods and the relevance of Ma’s defector character were clear to me from the offset. So, exposition dealt with, I could sit back and enjoy this thrilling action extravaganza from the legendary Shaw Brothers.
The film is loaded with fight scenes, with relatively few moments of down time between clashes. The choreography isn’t anything special I guess, but it’s solid enough and still a lot of fun to watch. Chen isn’t always wholly convincing as a martial artist either, but she delivers a suitably badass performance so gets away with it. What makes the action scenes memorable though are some of the unusual and often downright silly touches thrown in. On top of the crazy guillotine contraptions themselves, we have villains hiding in statues, goons wearing lifelike masks of their master and even a gratuitous topless fight scene with a female assassin. I’ve always had a particular fondness for the ‘anything goes’ attitude of Hong Kong action films of this era so I was in heaven here. Also noteworthy are a couple of sequences that bear a resemblance to scenes from the more recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In one we see our heroine sneaking and leaping across the rooftops in a night-raid and in another we get a fight in a bamboo forest, including some gravity defying climbs up the slender trunks.
The film looks good too, with attractive framing making great use of the wide scope and the usual colourful and elaborate (if rather fake looking) Shaw Brothers production design.
The love triangle and pregnancy aspects add a bit more meat to the otherwise bog-standard revenge story. It’s all quite melodramatic of course, but means you have characters to root for in the fight scenes. The pregnancy angle also paves the way for a deeply shocking sequence later on which I won’t reveal for fear of spoilers. The Shaw Brothers films are known to get a bit gory at times, but this is disturbing even by their standards, particularly in an otherwise straightforward display of sword slashes and the odd decapitation and impaling.
All in all, The Vengeful Beauty wasn’t breaking new grounds in its genre and won’t win over those without a taste for Kung Fu movies, but it’s a solid, action-packed revenge movie from the Shaw Brothers vaults that I enjoyed greatly. With fun tricks up its sleeves, a cracking pace and a suitably tough and smart heroine, it’s a treat for Hong Kong action fans like me.
The Vengeful Beauty is out on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by 88 Films as part of their 88 Asia Collection. You can order it now from their website – https://88-films.myshopify.com/ The Blu-Ray looks and sounds fantastic. The picture is clean and detailed but still natural-looking.
There are a few special features included too:
– Limited Edition first pressing matt finish slipcase and booklet notes by Dr. Calum Waddell
– Restored HD Master in 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio
– Uncompressed Chinese Audio with English Subtitles
- Yueh Hua interview by Frédéric Ambroisine
- Susan Shaw interview by Frédéric Ambroisine
- Reverse Sleeve featuring Original Hong Kong Poster Art
The Susan Shaw interview is short, but starkly honest. She had a tough time during and after the shoot and doesn’t hold back in telling us her sad story. The booklet is as excellent as ever too. Many people head straight for the video extras on discs like this, but the booklet provides more detailed thoughts on the film than any back-slapping interview could.