You would think that watching a great deal of wuxia films over the years that they would be a little easier to understand. I’m sure there’s at least a minor sense of disconnect not having the cultural significance, but it seems as if each one is trying to be more convoluted than the last. At least it’s been that way after slogging through such fare as The Four, Painted Skin: The Resurrection, and now The Guillotines. I was hoping that coming from Andrew Lau — one of the directors of Infernal Affairs — The Guillotines would be a roaring good time. Unfortunately, it appears that maybe Lau is at his best when paired with Infernal Affairs’ co-director Alan Mak; the two have failed to deliver anything as exceptional as those three films by themselves.
Convoluted is the order of the day when it comes to The Guillotines. The title refers to a group of assassins under order of the Yongzheng Emperor (Lau), during the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty. Now that Qianlong Emperor (Wen Zhang) has taken the throne and wants to adopt Western ideas and technology — guns and canons — the Emperor also employs the Guillotines to persecute the Han Chinese under a reign of terror. Led by Leng (Ethan Juan) and Haidu (Shawn Yue), the rest of the group includes Musen (Li Yuchun), Shisan (Jing Boran), Chen Tai (Purba Rygal), Hutu (Gao Tian), and Buka (Zhou Yiwei). Word has it that Qianlong wants to get rid of the Guillotines once he takes control of the remaining Han, but first they must track down and bring back the head of Wolf (Huang Xiaoming) — a Christ-like figure keeping the Han safe and hidden.
The trailer (which is one of the few special features) makes it seem as if The Guillotines will be full of all kinds of rip-roaring action. Unfortunately, all the action you’re going to find is what’s in the trailer. There are lots of flashbacks and visions had by the many characters, but as you can see, with that many involved, how do you keep any of it straight? There’s also double-crossings and shifts of allegiance to follow as well. All of this would be okay if there was any reason to care; instead, Lau seems more intent on making the film some kind of statement on equality, with a big speech delivered at the end of the film before it fades to black. The action also isn’t help by Lau’s hyperkinetic cinematography for maximum viewer confusion. I hear fantastic things about The Grandmaster featuring beautiful fight scenes. And I’ve seen them myself in such recent fare as Tai Chi Zero/Hero. But that is not the case with The Guillotines.
At least the 2.39:1 framed, MPEG-4 AVC video encode from Well Go USA continues their trend of top notch transfers. While you may not be able to comprehend most of the action, at least you’ll be able to see it. Detail is razor sharp, showing every fine detail of the shooting locations, period costumes, hairstyles, and pores on the casts’ faces. Shot digitally, there is some slight noise that creeps in from time to time, but that’s it for anomalies. No banding, crush, or aliasing to speak of here. As for the 7.1 Mandarin DTS-HD Master Audio, they deliver every whizzing bullet and flying guillotine from speaker to speaker. While a lot of the action seemed to be rather rear heavy, it never drowns out dialogue, which comes through crystal clear. And the LFE certainly gains momentum in the escalating action scenes once they finally get around to happening.
The special features are sparse and extremely repetitious. Besides the film’s trailer, there’s a “Making Of” running a mild 17 minutes so I decided to watch that first. A decent mix of cast and crew interviews with on-set and behind the scenes footage, you get a good look at what went into making The Guillotines. Unfortunately, there is also the 37-minute “Interviews with the Cast and Crew” which is made up entirely of most of the interview footage I just barely watched in the “Making Of.” Watch one or the other but don’t bother with both.
If you’re a fan of the genre then you will probably find enough here to give you a decent fix. But The Guillotines is mostly boring and far too convoluted to warrant a purchase. A rental is definitely the way to go.