The Guillotines -- a Film Review
Andrew Lau's (Infernal Affairs, Legend of the Fist, The Return of the Chen Zhen) The Guillotines is a visual feast, with beautifully reconstructed Qing-era costumery, important hairstyles, court pageantry, authentic architectural icons, eye-pleasing rustic villages and vistas, and codes of honor.
The fight scenes, and those featuring the remarkable decapitational "guillotines" are ablaze with inventive staging and spurting blood, rolling heads, and affectless brutal extermination. The "Guillotine" here is launched from a curving segmented scythe and sent flying for a terrifying, revolving, toothed flight before this infernal weapon locks around a victim's neck, then opening to a dozen curving scalpel blades separating the victim from his head with the yank of a chain: Flying death, a weapon that compels fear and subjugation to the Emperor's insistence on obedience to his imperious reign.
The translated term is more an evocative misnomer for an "ancient" Chinese weapon, referring more commonly to the harrowing instrument created in Europe and applied with terrifying effectiveness until its use was discontinued in the late 1970s. I saw a rusting guillotine in Vietnam in 2004, in the infamous dankness of the Hanoi Hilton, among the many picturesque torture instrumentalities starkly arrayed where the northern Viet Minh tortured our soldiers for years. It continued to be used long after the French Revolution that gave it birth for the justly named Reign of Terror, and remained France's standard choice for judicial dispatch until they abolished capital punishment, and the guillotine as judicial punishment, under Francois Mitterrand as late as 1981. (Twelve out of 12 people would have bet its use was ended decades earlier.) For another truly trivial iota of connected ephemera: Last person in France to feel the 'slight pinch' was a Mr. Hamida Diandoubi, back in September 1977.
Thus calling this whirling metal-toothed circle of instant death from the last dynasty (1644-1911), the Great Qing ("pure"), a guillotine is a poetic license not many Andrew Lau fans would cavil at, but historians might.
The Guillotines, an elite assassination band that had trained to kill for a prior Emperor, is now considered "a stain" to the current Emperor. Banished to a remote fastness of the land, they are hunted mercilessly by teams that outgun and outman them. They must try to outwit the well-supplied forces sent against them.
Note to fashionistas: The Emperor's horseback cavalry are outfitted in leathern protective body layers [and plumed helmets] so studded with brass nail-heads that, for a brief moment, I thought they were outfitted in dandified polka-dotted oxblood rawhide. But no. Costumes in such films are endlessly detailed and fascinating, as are the endlessly innovative headgear as well as the shaven heads of the children, in keeping with the styles of the era. Minorities in the PRC today are still distinguished by their idiosyncratic headwear and complex traditional garments.
The protagonists, distractingly handsome, are never less than compelling. The acting by both the Han forces and elite Manchurian Greens on behalf of the life-and-death Emperor is better than it need be, given the likelihood of the audience staying rapt as long as the action is close-in, endowed with buckets of blood and courageous leaping, swordplay, and testosterone. The soulful, suffering women warriors are no slouches, either. Their treatment when captured and used as prey or hostages -- perhaps historically somewhat accurate -- is hard to stomach. Casual viciousness does not endear a film to some viewers. Also difficult to swallow are numerous villagers with smallpox who figure throughout the action. Viewers are glad that particular malady has been exiled to the dead letter office.
Older children can see this film without being exposed to either offensive language or any level of exposed flesh, sex or mushiness. Just good, old-fashioned, Tarantinoesque spray-at-will murder and heartless compliance with the assassin's template. Moreover, a point in its favor is that the language employed -- and the subtitles, too -- because it must approximate the grammar and locutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, is more elevated and literary than contemporary films are free to employ, to the young hearer's detriment. There is little slang, for the same reason. But the large emotions are in evidence, as they ought to be; this could be transmuted into a congruent era in English history, too, if without the lush satin embroideries, paper-cut schnitte, and elaborate scimitars.
Aside from the expected sanguine nature of this genre, which may not be to the taste of vegans and bunny rabbits, the plot intricacy depends on comfort with the Chinese caste system then and now. Today, of course, Han are over 90% of the Chinese population of the People's Republic, and they are not subordinated in the lower ranks they occupied centuries ago. The 56 different minorities constitute just 10% of China's vast population, and they play less of a stellar role than do the now-elite Han.
The shifting loyalties and the evolution of the fighter forces is somewhat hard to follow, absent a familiarity with Chinese history -- but again, for those who gorge on historic martial entertainments, the complicated script may not be the major focus.
The takeaway is clear: Living in peace offers more satisfactions and a surer old age than the desserts of mayhem and professional ear-to-ear jobs. Even if the Emperor orders 'take-out.'