The Guillotines (2012)

Posted in Reviews by - January 08, 2023
The Guillotines (2012)

A modern, 3D-rendered retelling of the 1975 Shaw Brothers film, The Flying Guillotine, from director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs). He uses his visual effects skills to cook-up a flying guillotine worthy of the digital age. This is no flimsy hatbox on a chain which is simply thrown into the air before landing on the necks of its unsuspecting victims. This sophisticated, multi-blade contraption spins viciously at the end of a massive sword, gathering momentum until it is released like a frisbee, whirling violently in various directions, disorientating its victims, and revealing a sequence of evil-looking sharp things before the victim’s inevitable decapitation – made all the more obscene with a bevvy of accompanying whooshing and clanking sounds. Once the weapon is introduced, however, Lau sort of forgets about its existence, focusing instead on the unravelling dynamic between the weapons’ users, known collectively as ‘the Guillotines’. The gang (led by Jimmy Wang Yu in a special appearance, a filmmaker who helped to popularise the weapon in 1975’s Master of the Flying Guillotine) are used as a tool of the Qing government to do their dirty work, which includes taking out any fringe groups or rebel movements – like the ‘Herders’, a Han Chinese tribe who are initially depicted as something of a spiritual cult, led by charismatic leader, Wolf (Huang Xiaoming). Wolf is a part-Jesus, part-Che Guevara figure who kidnaps the Guillotines’ only female member (Li Yu-chun), causing the rest of the group to leave the comfort of the Imperial Court and come to her rescue. Along the way, they learn about the realities of life outside the palace; the poverty and disease, the persecution and injustice. Within the dynamic are the ‘brothers’ – lovers? – Haidu (Shawn Yue), an imperial guard, and Leng (Ethan Juan), who reveals his personal connection to the Qing rulers before the Guillotines themselves are targeted by their own government as a way of covering its tracks. Andrew Lau is a director more than capable of balancing size, spectacle and gimmicks with intimate drama, and this is a good example of his technique. The tone may be too earnest for some – particularly for a flying guillotine movie – and the action overtly stylised, but as a character study it works much better.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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