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During the Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty, Emperor Yong Zheng established a secret assassination squad known as the Guillotines to eliminate all who opposed him. Once heavily favored by the Emperor, the Guillotines are deemed expendable once Emperor Qian Long ascends to the throne and adopts Western ideas and technology. To consolidate his power under a new regime, the Emperor continues to use the Guillotines to persecute the conquered Han Chinese in a reign of terror and oppression.
For more about The Guillotines and the The Guillotines Blu-ray release, see the The Guillotines Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on August 10, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Xiaoming Huang
Director: Andrew Lau
» See full cast & crew
The Guillotines Blu-ray Review
Wolf Christ Superstar.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, August 10, 2013
The guillotine is of course most associated with France, and especially the French revolution, but it seems that Mankind has long had a fascination with developing "technologies" to sever heads from their attendant bodies. Still, it may seem a bit odd that The Guillotines takes place in the Qing Dynasty in China. In this particular case, The Guillotines actually refers to a group rather than a device, though the group has taken their name courtesy of a flying disc they utilize which attaches to their victim's neck, unpacks a bunch of nasty looking hooks and blades and then, yes, removes said victim's head. The Guillotines starts off with a whiz bang action sequence that alludes to this bizarrely fascinating device without getting too gruesome about it, but the really interesting thing is the way this initial fight is structured, it's next to impossible to tell who the audience is supposed to be rooting for. The predators, whom we ultimately find out are in fact The Guillotines, are clad in black and seem awfully ominous, while the prey are clad in pristine white robes and almost seem to be a pacifist aggregation simply trying to get away from their attackers. If this film is titled The Guillotines, shouldn't they be the "good guys"? Despite the fact that the opponents are dressed in resolute tones of black and white in this opening gambit, it turns out the film tends to dabble in relative shades of gray as it goes along. It also turns out that this viscerally exciting first sequence is a bit of a cheat, for The Guillotines actually turns into more of a "palace intrigue" story than an out and out wuxia battle-fest. The film is visually quite stunning, but it's hampered by some pacing issues that sometimes make it seem as long as a certain wall in China that was meant to keep out interlopers.
As odd as it may be to associate guillotines with ancient China, it's perhaps at least as odd to have Christ figure posited as the focus of the film, but it seems inescapable that that's what director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) and the coterie of six writers involved in this release (does China have a WGA?) seem to have had in mind with reference to Wolf (Xiaoming Huang). Wolf, clad in a white robe and with flowing brown hair, insists he will heal his people, talks repeatedly about visions he has of being betrayed and killed by one of his own, and, perhaps most importantly, even invokes a sort of Golden Rule—albeit one that promises to do unto others as they have done unto his people (in other words, kick their butts, and then some).
Wolf is taken prisoner in the battle which opens the film, and he confides to Leng (Ethan Juan) that he's had a recurrent vision that Leng will kill him. Since he's chained and in a dungeon, Leng finds that all too easy to believe, but Wolf insists the time is not yet right—at least according to the vision he's had. The next day, a bunch of Wolf's white clad cohorts actually help free him on the way to his death sentence, and in the ensuing melée Wolf actually ends up taking one of the Guillotines, the female Musen (Yuchun Li), hostage. Leng and the rest of the Guillotines are tasked with retrieving her body, since her father, the mentor of the Guillotines, believes she must be dead, as well as killing Wolf. The new young Emperor insists that Haidu (Shawn Yue) accompany the Guillotines, which sets up a rather awkwardly framed set of flashbacks where we learn that Haidu and Leng were actually childhood friends who were taken from their families, with Leng "assigned" to the Guillotines and Haidu "assigned" to be the Emperor's aide.
Lau proved himself to be able to wend a rather labyrinthine set of plot points in Infernal Affairs, which makes the unfocused, often confusing, mess that The Guillotines is all the harder to understand (literally and figuratively). The film lurches forward in its main narrative thrust with bizarre sidebars that are meant to illuminate various characters' back stories but which instead often confound as it takes a while to realize that they are sidebars. There are a glut of shifting alliances here—too many, in fact—especially when Haidu insists to Leng that their allegiance is to the Emperor, not the Guillotines. Things get even more convoluted when the Emperor decides the Guillotines have outlived their usefulness and starts to utilize newer British technology (like big, fat guns) to decimate his enemies, which now include the Guillotines. This last plot point is really weirdly similar to Tai Chi Zero and its follow up Tai Chi Hero.
The Christ motif is slightly blended with John the Baptist (you Bible scholars may be able to figure out what that means) as the film moves toward its final few moments, at which point something rather strange happens—it becomes apparent that The Guillotines isn't really about Wolf as much as it is about Leng. As derided a term as it has become (probably rightfully so), it's Leng's "arc" which has the most emotional resonance and which gives the film a little push as Leng, Haidu and the Emperor reunite. The film closes with some factual information about the real life Emperor while stating that no trace of the Guillotines is found in the historical record. Maybe they all moved to France and set up shop there.
The Guillotines Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Guillotines is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Well Go USA with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.39:1. Director Andrew Lau and cinematographer Edmund Fung can't be faulted for the look of this digitally shot outing, which is really sumptuous and full blooded (take that literally if you must). While there's the requisite amount of sometimes severe color grading involved, typically toward either the yellow or blue sides of the spectrum, fine detail is rarely if ever compromised, and the entire film boasts really appealing precision. CGI is effortlessly interwoven into the proceedings, especially with regard to the admittedly super cool looking flying discs which become mini-guillotines. Lau evidently instructed Fung to keep the camera hyperkinetic, and the film is a nonstop barrage of tracking, dollying, Steadicam and crane shots. Some of the location photography boasts incredible depth of field, and the opulent sets and costumes are rendered with fantastic texture and detail.
The Guillotines Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Wow. Let's just say that The Guillotines' lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 passed the "Blu-rays stacked on my subwoofer are now flying through the air like mini-guillotines" test with ease. This is one aggressive mix that delivers a lot of things that go boom—repeatedly. The surround activity is totally immersive and includes a number of standout sequences, including one cascading series of explosions in an early fight sequence which features a really amazing low frequency rumble which clearly moves from the front channels around the sides and into the rear channels, while at the same time giving the subwoofer a real workout. Despite all of this sometimes overpowering sonic activity, dialogue is always delivered cleanly, well prioritized in the mix. The film doesn't really exploit much in the way of traditional underscore, but there is the use of some cool ethnic flutes of some kind in some scenes that sounds great. Fidelity is sterling and dynamic range is amazingly wide. By the way, the English dub on this disc is really pretty good, all things considered. There isn't the "What's Up Tiger Lily? disconnect" between lip movements and voice work that often accompanies these efforts, and in terms of overall mix, there's no appreciable difference.
The Guillotines Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Guillotines Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Personally, I think The Guillotines would have worked a lot better had Lau and his screenwriters presented everything chronologically, rather than ping ponging back and forth between the "present" and the "past". The film is simply too confusing and crowded in its present form to ever work up much momentum. That said, it is undeniably sumptuous to look at and listen to, and the fight sequences, while perhaps a bit more sporadic than some wuxia fans might be expecting, are spectacularly staged. The result is kind of a mixed bag. Those wanting a coherent story with an emotional connection are likely to be at least somewhat disappointed, while those who are content with eye and ear candy galore will probably be more able to overlook the film's shortcomings. One way or the other, this Blu-ray looks and sounds absolutely amazing.
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The Guillotines Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Guillotines Blu-ray (Updated) - June 17, 2013
Texas-based distributors Well Go USA Entertainment have revealed that they are planning to bring to Blu-ray director Andrew Lau's period action film The Guillotines (2012), starring Shawn Yue, Huang Xiao-Ming, Stephy Tang, Wen Zhang, and Boran Jing. The preliminary ...
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