Review: The Guillotines

Director: Andrew Lau (The Duel, Infernal Affairs, Confession of Pain)
Writers: Aubrey Lam, Joyce Chan, Jojo Hui Yuet-Chun, Peter Tsi, Junli Guo, Koon-nam Lui
Producers: Peter Chan, Yuet-Jan Hui
Starring: Peter Chan, Andrew Lau, Jojo Hui, Qin Hong, Lorraine Ho
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 112 min.



It’s pretty clear that someone with a passing fancy to the Ming dynasty may get something out of Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines. A time with such a rich history is of course ripe for cinema adaptation. Unfortunately, while Lau makes grand use of the Chinese landscape with some pleasing landscape photography, the rest of The Guillotines elements lack any real sharpness to speak of.

When Wuxia features like Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the like fitted themselves snuggly into the cracks of western pop culture, it was easy to see how. It wasn’t just the big eastern stars both in front and behind the frame that sold the movies, but the grace and handling of the action and melodrama within such films. Lau (Infernal Affairs) is a clearly a formidable director and The Guillotines sometimes hints at the type of vibrancy that he can deliver. A short sequence of hailstones smacking against the absolutely insane piece of machinery that is The Guillotines delivers an eye blink of the type of tone I was expecting from the piece. Such a moment is so fleeting however, people will wonder why such flittering aspect is so interesting. We could place it upon different strokes.

The Guillotines is, however, the type of film that allows for melodrama and maybe that’s why such fleeting aspects touched me. It’s a pity that the performances and story are too flat to push ahead and take more of that on board. The Guillotines never reaches out or rises above. Despite its hectic start (which doesn’t feature the best fight editing), the film remains on a flat plateau. Even its narrative mix of men on a mission and outsider welcomed back in feels bog standard in its execution. A sepia drenched flashback occurs later in the film which tries to suggest that we spent more time and had more fun than we actually did. It’s a bit of a shame.

The Guillotines has spent a bit of time on the development turn wheel and because of this, Lau, who already has an iconic crime thriller under his belt, feels like more of a hired gun. The film is competently crafted on its budget but holds little of interest in its action (less of it than you think) and narrative (you’ll call it before the characters will). Its final optimistic message strives to be heartfelt, but lies within a film that has none of the energy to maintain it. A pity.

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David Brook

The Wuxia genre has been struggling a bit in the last 5-10 years after its resurgence back in the early 2000’s died down. I quite enjoyed Dragon (a.k.a. Wu Xia) but other than that they’ve been pretty disappointing.