The Guillotines is the kind of movie Quentin Tarantino would make if he were really, really serious. And my husband, who believes Tarantino to be the best filmmaker ever, agrees with me -- which adds considerable weight to my opinion, of course. This Chinese action epic includes pervasive violence, bloodshed and decapitations galore but without any of Tarantino’s bizarre humor. Focusing on China during the Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty, the story deals with such serious themes as nationalism, brotherhood, and how old warfare strategies give way to the new. Although a bit too gory for me and difficult to follow at times, the film also boasts some gorgeous visuals as well as intriguing characters played by Ethan Juan and Xiaoming Huang.
Who are the Guillotines? They’re a secret assassination squad -- skilled in using deadly flying swords -- established by Emperor Yong Zheng (Wai-keung Lau). Their mission? To get rid of his enemies. Their leader Leng (Ethan Juan), a master fighter, is above reproach in his loyalty. However, a new Emperor, Qian Long (Zheng Wen) comes to power and uses the Guillotines to terrorize and oppress the Han Chinese. He also decides to adopt new technology for warfare, one which would make the Guillotines obsolete. In the meantime, Wolf (Xiaoming Huang), a Han Chinese rebel, gains more and more followers who oppose the Emperor’s goal of consolidating his reign.
It’s fascinating to watch the events that bring Leng and Wolf together and lead to their unusual cooperation. Both actors deserve praise for the emotional depth they bring to these key roles. Ethan Juan (Love) has the most difficult character arc to complete, and he succeeds with flying colors. But Xiaoming Huang (Ipman 2: Legend of the Grandmaster) projects such charisma that it’s difficult to watch anyone else when he’s in a scene. He looks and acts like a prophet who can put anyone under his spell.
Two other acting standouts here are Yuchun Li (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) as Musen, a fierce female Guillotine, and Shawn Yue (Motorway) as Haidu, a relentless supporter of the Emperor.
Directed by Andrew Lau of Infernal Affairs fame, The Guillotines surprised me. From the title, I expected just another violent martial arts flick (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instead, this movie offers much more, especially in terms of its universal themes and cinematic presentation -- thanks to Edmond Fung, director of photography -- as well as its thrilling background music by Kwong Wing Chan.
(Released by Well Go and rated “R” for strong violent content.)
For more information about The Guillotines, go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.