The Guillotines: long-winded wuxia film groans under the weight of being all things to all people

Andrew Lau Wai-keung, “The Guillotines” (2012)

An overly fussy and long-winded film on brotherhood and loyalty, and how changes beyond a society’s control affect individual people and test their values, “The Guillotines” starts out as a fun action-packed wuxia ballet but ends up all earnest and preachy about the proper relationship between government and the people it rules. Not surprisingly as this is a joint Hong Kong /Mainland Chinese production, the film conveys a conservative message about how people really should be loyal to their legitimate rulers, no matter that they have every right to be suspicious about the elites’ shifting intentions and powers. A major problem with the film is that it tries to be all things to all people so it packs in a tragic romance, a bunch of soul brothers, double-crossing galore, blurred boundaries between goodies and baddies, loads of schmaltz, blood and gore, cute kids and, above all, a despotic Emperor figure who presides over this complex world like a capricious god.

In the film’s opening scenes, a group of fleeing rebel peasants called the Herders, led by a charismatic messiah figure Wolf (Xiaoming Huang), is ambushed and picked off one by one down to Wolf by a secret government squad of assassins called the Guillotines. Led by Nala Leng (Ethan Juan), this group was formed by the old Qing Emperor Yongzheng on the birth of his son Qianlong, using children born on the same day as Qianlong. The youngsters grow up learning only to fight and never learn any other skills such as reading and writing; they are groomed to be assassins to do the Imperial government’s dirty business such as hunting out potential trouble-makers and killing them by chucking deadly knife-edged frisbees that clamp around the victims’ necks, sprout long blades and spikes, and decapitate them in the bloodiest way possible on screen. Furthermore, when the old Emperor dies and Qianlong ascends to power, the new boss orders the Guillotines to obliterate all political opposition to him, which troubles them all. On orders from above, the Guillotines toss Wolf into prison; Leng visits him and Wolf tells him of a vision of his (Wolf’s) death that involves Leng as perpetrator. Later Wolf escapes custody in over-blown fashion and takes a female Guillotine assassin, Musen (Yuchun Li), with him as hostage. For their failure to keep Wolf under guard, the Guillotines are ordered to find him and bring him back, and to rescue Musen. The Guillotines ride off with the Emperor’s personal guard Haidu (Shawn Yue), childhood friend of Leng, in tow.

It doesn’t take long for the Guillotines to locate their quarry in mountainous country where they discover Wolf has built up a thriving farming community where everyone lives equally and works hard, bringing in abundant produce and sharing everything they have. While the Guillotines grapple with their consciences over obeying the Emperor’s orders and leaving the people in peace, Haidu soon reveals through his words and actions the real reason he has accompanied them: unbeknownst to them, Qianlong has ordered Haidu to kill them all once they have flushed out and got rid of Wolf and his Herders. Seems that the new boy is enamoured of modern Western technology like military cannon and rifles, and prefers to use these instead of employing special elite forces to play Frisbee Ne Plus Ultra. As the assassins themselves are picked off, Leng is torn among competing loyalties to his squad, Haidu and Qianlong. In the meantime, while the assassins are being chased by Haidu’s forces, Musen learns about Wolf’s background and personal mission, repents of her past deeds and decides to join Wolf’s community.

The character drama is well done and the good-looking young actors who play Leng, Haidu, Wolf, Musen and Qianlong do good work in fleshing out their characters and what drives them, and in expressing emotion, particularly sorrow, although I daresay a few tears here and there were painted on by special effects people where crying is called for. Huang in particular stamps Wolf’s role with authority and draws out the character’s Jesus-like charms well. The film makes clear though that Huang can be quite ruthless and for all the idyllic and peaceful nature of the community he creates, it does have the air of a strong personality cult. Juan and Haidu are also good as the close childhood friends who, due to the brainwashing they received as littlies, are forced by the scheming Qianlong to become bitter enemies.

Where the film falls flat is in the excessive bulking of slow motion scenes and fight scenes, constant flashbacks and repetitive motifs such as a dying character’s entire life flipping before his/her eyes. The music is overdone (it even includes a weepy love song sung by Yuchun Li off-screen) and the film, in trying to convey a sense of the epic that was Imperial China, overdoes the grandeur: if a plot element can be done to the max, director Lau seizes every opportunity to flog it to excess. Except, unfortunately, for the eponymous guillotining frisbees themselves which feature in just two fight scenes and those bunched up near the beginning of the film.

If we had just had the story, the characters, the mountain scenery, the culture of Emperor Qianlong’s time and the fight scenes, and all these trimmed down to what’s needed to push the narrative along and expound on the film’s themes of brotherhood, loyalty and the shifting nature of power and how it brainwashes and oppresses people, robbing them of their individuality and the freedom to run their own lives as they see fit, “The Guillotines” would have been a good and visually gorgeous historical drama with some elements of the Western movie genre. Carrying so much baggage to please the Chinese movie-going public though, the film ends up being very thin and I’d say many people in China watching the film would feel quite cheated.

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