The Guillotines: Film Review

An occasionally thematically scattershot wuxia actioner that will appeal to fans of the genre.

Director Andrew Lau's sprawling epic is finally hitting screens.

The long-gestating The Guillotines, the love child of Hong Kong action maestro Andrew Lau and relatively adventurous producer-director Peter Chan, is finally hitting screens, not so much with a glorious bang but something of a thud. At one time rumored to be a straight-up remake of the Shaw Brothers classic, Flying Guillotine, this film pivots on a crew of assassins whose weapon of choice is the titular blade—something of a cross between buzz saw and Xena’s chakram that attaches to the neck and with the pull of a wire, decapitates the wearer. The Guillotines isn’t explicitly violent but it has a grim, nasty overtone that presses down on the familiar narrative as it builds slowly to the inevitable. It’s been a while since we were treated to a good old-fashioned drawing and quartering.

Already sold to parts of Europe, the UK, North America and Australia, any territories that are left could be swayed by the considerable talent behind the title, and Asian distributors should come calling if they haven’t already on the strength of the young, rising stars in the cast. The bizarre marriage of criticism and praise should make the film a hit in China, and an extended life on DVD and download for Asiaphiles is a safe bet. The 3D is adequate and could look better on BluRay on a big television.

The film begins with a kinetic, blistering action sequence that shows off what the legendary Qing Dynasty death squad was all about. Tasked by the Emperor to put down any dissenters with the fabled blade, The Guillotines are led by Leng (Ethan Juan, Monga, rather on the bland side), a typically soulful, reticent assassin with a tortured past. Leng and his crew are on the hunt for Wolf (Huang Xiaoming, The Banquet), a Han Chinese rebel with a quasi-militia called The Herders, all of whom have taken issue with the Manchurian rulers’ heavy handed reign of terror. The Guillotines find him but decide to use him as a bargaining chip for their own power play, but of course while they’re discussing some minor detail, Wolf manages to stage an escape and run off with a hostage, Guillotine Musen (Li Yuchun, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate).

That’s the basic infrastructure that sets up Lau’s sprawling, occasionally disjointed epic. Underneath the plot machinations that at different moments recall The Wild Bunch (a vanishing way of life), The Seven Samurai (a town under siege) and Lau’s own Infernal Affairs (young boys trained by the same organization to work on opposite side of the law) among others there’s some contemplation of social justice and the impact of obsolescence on one’s identifying purpose. And what a mixed bag of images Lau’s thrown up on the screen—choices that are either simply confused or calculated ambiguities to ensure the film works outside of Hong Kong. Wolf in particular is perplexing: with his tangle of wild tresses and chin-centric facial hair he could be a charismatic cult leader, a classic marital arts master or Jesus. Take your pick. Wolf’s message of respect and peace has something of two-sided aspect as well. Given Mainland China’s recent change in government, Lau and Chan have made a fairly bold statement about the power of egalitarian rule. But Wolf’s rural compound populated by (clearly) socially superior Han is hilariously idyllic; everyone just wants to sing, say hi to the neighbors and cook. If ever there was a mixed message this is it.

As if that weren’t enough to cram into one film, the Guillotines final mission is handed an Imperial envoy, Haidu (Shawn Yue, Love in the Buff), who is also a childhood friend of Leng’s. Little does Leng know, Haidu is there to help the new emperor, Qianlong, make the smooth transition to more Western style military tactics, and that means erasing the black stain on history that is the Guillotines. Screenwriters Joyce Chan (a co-writer on Bodyguards and Assassins) and Aubrey Lam (Wu Xia) tread some well-worn ground in this area and never veer from that path. The requisite arguments over brotherhood and loyalty—among the Guillotines as well as between Haidu and Leng—are all present and accounted for, though when Yue is finally allowed to let Haidu go full-on maniac he seems to be having more fun than at any other point in the film.

Technically, The Guillotines falls flat in spots. The 3D flirts with gimmickry in the fight scenes and is almost unnoticeable in all the others. On top of that the glasses (at least the ones provided at the Hong Kong screening) made the picture extra dark—darker than expected—and obscured Fung Yuen-man’s wide-open vistas and color saturated battles. With Life of Pi still fresh in viewers’ minds, filmmakers are going to have to seriously up their games if indeed 3D is going to be come a standard of any kind, even for just genre films.

Producer: Peter Chan, Hui Yuet-chan

Director: Andrew Lau

Cast: Shawn Yue, Huang Xiaoming, Ethan Juan, Li Yuchun, Jing Boran,

Screenwriter: Aubrey Lam, Joyce Chan

Executive producer: Peter Chan, Peter Lam

Director of Photography: Fung Yuen-man

Production Designer: Kenneth Mak

Music: Kwong Wing-chan

Costume designer:Dora Ng

Editor: Chung Wai-chiu

No rating: 112 minutes