With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

ACF 1995: THE GUILLOTINES - Region 1 Blu-ray review

The Guillotines
Directed by Andrew Lau
China/Hong Kong, 2012, 113 minutes

The Guillotines is set for release tomorrow, Tuesday, August 13th on Blu-ray and DVD from Well Go USA Entertainment. The title is the name of an elite group that is tasked with handling the "dirty jobs" for the Manchurian emperors of the Qing Dynasty. Their weapon of choice is the flying guillotine, which can be thrown a great distance and then decapitates its intended victim.

Flying guillotines go back to Hong Kong films at least as early as the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers' The Flying Guillotine (1975) being one of the best known. I believe I first saw one used by Anthony Wong's character Kau in The Heroic Trio (1993). Traditionally the device lands on the victim's head, a mesh screen then drops all around it, and an internal system of blades is activated, separating the head from the neck.

Here, the device has been given a steam punk update. It's a metallic frisbee-like ring that spins like an electro-magnet on the inner edge of a curved blade, giving off all sorts of visually stimulating sparks. Then it's thrown by the sword similar to the way the ball is hurled by the hand-held cesta "basket" in jai alai. It encircles the target's neck, and then an intricate system of gears (shown in CGI) activates the decapitation mechanism.

The Guillotines attack Wolf

The Guilltines begin with a night scene in which their target is Wolf (Huang Xiaoming). He is the leader of the Herders, a rebel group of the ethnic majority Han Chinese who are oppressed by their Manchu overlords. The few followers that were with him are killed, but Wolf is captured and taken to be executed. Other followers rescue him and in making their escape, they take Mu (Li Yuchun), the one female member of The Guillotines, captive.

Sent to re-capture Wolf, The Guillotines find themselves between a rock and a hard place. See, Qian Long, the young emperor, has decided to adopt Western ways and modernize China with guns and cannons, rendering The Guillotines obsolete. Considered a stain on the Emperor's historical record, they are destined for annihilation regardless of whether or not they succeed in re-capturing Wolf. All, that is, except for Leng (Ethan Juan), a Han Chinese who, as a child, was chosen to serve Qian Long by his father, the emperor at the time.

I first saw The Guillotines at a press screening early this past June, prior to its theatrical opening in the U.S. I wasn't impressed by it then, but thought I might feel differently watching it a second time. Unfortunately, that was not the case. There are just too many problems and weakness in the story and its structure.

Leng in a poster. Although released in 3D in China, the film was not shot in native 3D
While early in the film each member of The Guillotines is identified by name and assignment within the unit, we only learn much about two of them, Leng and, to a much lesser extent, Mu. So it's hard to care much about the others as they're hunted down by the Emperor's forces, especially since they do such nasty things to people, including innocent Han civilians.

The reviews of the film's theatrical release by Christopher Bourne and at Eastern Kicks were largely negative and mentioned the difficulties it had being made. These include a total of six screenwriters, usually not a good sign. Whatever the case, the dialogue sometimes is quite baffling. Early on Wolf states that The Guillotines operate only at night. In practically the next scene, when Wolf is being saved by his followers, The Guillotines are out in broad daylight doing their thing. WTF? Seems like someone lost track of what had been said. Also Wolf and his Han followers are overall portrayed as the sweetest, kindest people to have ever graced the earth. Yet they really put the hurt on Mu, a helpless female captive. Inconsistent and confusing, no?

The film as a whole also suffers from being highly derivative. Wolf is clearly a Christ-like messianic figure, and Leng has much in common with Judas, although he does not actually "betray" Wolf. The rescue of Wolf as he's on his way to be executed is straight out of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and the bombardment of the Herders' encampment by the Emperor's cannons is like a replay of similar scenes in Shaolin (2011) or Tai Chi Hero (2012). I have nothing against such "borrowings" per se, but here there's no new twist, nothing inventive or witty, nothing that grabbed, let alone held, my attention.

In terms of action, the film is also a let down. Their are really only two scenes in which the flying guillotines are used, and they both occur relatively early in the movie. The rest of the action, if you can call it that, is uninspired. Ho, hum.

The bottom line is that the talents involved are capable of making, and should have made, a much better film than this.

As for the Blu-ray disc version, the transfer is beautiful. Bonus features include a "making of" featurette and interviews with some members of the cast and crew.

ACF rating: 2 out of 4 stars; fair, nothing to particularly commend it beyond a couple of action set pieces.

However, in fairness I must refer readers to Patrick Galloway's review, which is quite positive. I know Patrick and respect him greatly. The Guillotines is just one of those films that we have differing opinions about.