With Chinese period epics still continuing to fill cinemas, it’s no surprise that old school Shaw Brothers favourites are increasingly being brought back to screens, 1975 classic “The Flying Guillotine” now reappearing as “The Guillotines”. The film was produced by Peter Chan, who recently updated the Shaws’ “Blood Brothers” as “The Warlords”, this time allowing Andrew Lau of “Infernal Affairs” fame to take the director’s seat and with a big name pan-Chinese language cast headlined by Huang Xiaoming (“Ip Man 2”), rising Taiwanese star Ethan Ruan (“Monga”), Shawn Yue (“Motorway”), pop singer Chris Li (“Bodyguards and Assassins”), Jing Boran (“The Bullet Vanishes”) and Wen Zhang (“Love is Not Blind”).
The guillotines of the title are a secret brotherhood of assassins controlled by Emperor Qian Long (Wen Zhang) during the Qing Dynasty, their name also referring to the fearsome decapitation weapon they wield. Charged with bringing down rebel leader and apparent prophet Wolf (Huang Xiaoming), guillotine leader Leng (Ethan Ruan) and his men are joined on the dangerous quest by his childhood friend, palace official Haidu (Shawn Yue). After female team member Musen (Chris Li) is grabbed by the rebels, the mission quickly becomes a rescue attempt, complicated by Wolf seeming to have some kind of odd destiny bond with Leng. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the guillotines, the Emperor has decided that their brutal ways are no longer needed, instructing Haidu to ensure that none come back alive.
It’s best to say from the start that anyone expecting a full on explosion of martial arts action and crazy weaponry in the style of “The Flying Guillotine” may well be disappointed with “The Guillotines”, which is definitely a case of re-imagining rather than remaking. Andrew Lau and Peter Chan clearly had something else on their minds other than the daft fun suggested by the premise, instead focusing on an emotionally wrought and philosophical tale that takes itself surprisingly seriously throughout. While there isn’t nearly as much action as expected, this for the most part doesn’t work too badly, the film working in a mature treatment of themes of nationalism, brotherhood and of the needs of the individual versus the greater good – with clear and doubtlessly intentional shades of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero”. Though not as effective in this regard as “The Warlords” and at times lapsing into needlessly pretentious religious symbolism, the film does engage and has more depth than most of its type, winning points for not always taking the obvious route, even at the expense of crowd pleasing spectacle.
Thankfully, despite boasting a worryingly high number of writers, the film has a reasonably strong and coherent script, with some decent character work and tough moral dilemmas. The odd dynamics which Leng shares with Haidu and Wolf are both interesting, if a little too reliant on hot and heavy male bonding and staring, and the film does manage some moments of high drama, with a few unexpected developments along the way to its pleasingly downbeat conclusion. The leads are all on suitably manly and glowering form, Ethan Ruan and Shawn Yue coming off best, Huang Xiaoming being a bit hamstrung by the film’s weirdly Christ-like treatment of Wolf. On the downside, though the main plot and characters engage, the supporting cast are all thinly sketched at best, the other guillotines in particular coming across as little more than daft thugs, meaning that the viewer barely notices when they start getting knocked off by Haidu, with no noticeable emotional impact.
Visually, the film is very impressive indeed, as usual with such re-imaginings going for a gritty and grounded look, with lots of dirt, dust and filtered sunlight. Lau has always been a director known for slickness and gloss, though he wisely tones things down here, the cinematography not being too forcefully grandiose. The special effects and CGI work are of the high standard expected from was undoubtedly a generous budget, and though the new guillotine weapons are a bit odd, it’s a lot of fun to see them in action, fairly whipping the heads off their victims. Though the film’s restraint generally works, it’s kind of a shame that there’s not more of the guillotines or more action in general, as when it does step up a gear it’s genuinely exciting and spectacular, the martial arts and duels well-choreographed and occasionally quite bloody. Lau does throw in a few large scale set pieces towards the end, enough so to probably still mark the film as period action rather than just drama, and these should satisfy viewers with a hankering for the epic.
Overall though, “The Guillotines” is a surprisingly thoughtful film, and one which earns points for its efforts in plot, theme and character. Since it’s debatable whether the world needs another slow motion heavy period action film, it’s lack of battles and martial arts is by no means a bad thing, and while it may disappoint those looking for crazy flying guillotine fun, Andrew Lau and Peter Chan have done a solid job of updating the premise and delivering something worthwhile.
Wai-keung Lau (director) / Ka-kei Chit, Yuet-Jan Hui, Oi Wah Lam, Koon-nam Lui (screenplay)
CAST: Zhang Wen