Reviews

The Central Conflict in 'The Guillotines' Is Tradition vs Progress

On clinging, violently, to conventional ways of life in the face of crushing, inevitable progress.


The Guillotines

Director: Andy Lau
Cast: Ethan Juan, Shawn Yue, Xioming Huang
Distributor: Well Go
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-08-13

The Master of the Flying Guillotine (aka, One-Armed Boxer 2 and One-Armed Boxer Vs. The Flying Guillotine, which is how many of us first saw the film) is one of the most memorable movies in the Shaw Brothers cannon, which is saying something big, because they’re responsible for countless martial arts gems. Legendary Hong Kong director Andy Lau (Internal Affairs) recently took a whack at a remake, now available on Blu-ray from Well Go USA, with mixed results.

Lau’s reimagining takes the original framework and interprets the subject in a grittier, more realistic fashion, giving the inherent violence a more visceral feel. In doing so, he negates all of the fun of the source. The title comes from deadly weapon that, in the original, looks like a goofy hood that is thrown over an enemy’s dome, and used to behead the target. It’s silly, but badass in an over the top, low-budget martial arts kind of way. In Lau’s update, the titular weapon gets a CGI makeover that’s already starting to look dated, and while it serves the same purpose, it's supposed to be much more sinister. But it’s almost never seen outside of the first scene.

The secret gang of royal assassins takes its name from their signature weapon, which they almost never use. Cut off the opening battle, remove the word guillotine from the script, and most would never make a connection between this film and its precursor. Once the crew was the favored method of dealing with all that oppose him, the emperor’s fancy has been caught by more modern, Western, gunpowder-based armaments, like guns and cannons. After all, a guillotine can kill any man within ten paces, but a rifle can reach much further than that. And new toys are shiny and fun.

This is the central conflict in The Guillotines, tradition versus progress, and clinging to your conventional ways of life in the face of crushing, inevitable progress. Leng (Ethan Juan), the leader, and the rest of the team, have never failed in more than 300 missions, but the guy on the throne has other ideas. When a prisoner named Wolf (Xioming Huang) escapes from their custody, it spells the beginning of the end for the guys. While the prince represents impending change, new ways of thinking, Wolf is on the opposite end of this spectrum. Vilified as a terrorist by the powers that be in the Manchurian-ruled Qing Dynasty, he is a folk hero to the Han Chinese, working with victims of a smallpox outbreak, protecting his people, and fighting to protect a passing way of life.

Leng finds himself in the middle of this conflict. With a sworn loyalty to his metaphorical brother the prince, more immediately symbolized by his other faux-brother Haidu (Shawn Yue), everything he’s ever known or worked for goes right out the window. But he clings to this even as Wolf shows him the truth of the situation. This is where The Guillotines lays it on way too thick. As Wolf reveals reality to Leng, as Leng grapples with the betrayal of his brothers, things veer from sweeping historical epic, into full on melodrama. There are so many man tears, and the point the Wolf is a Christ-like figure blares like trumpets in every scene.

Themes of duplicity and allegiance occur throughout, and the focus primarily rests on the embodiment and reality of these ideas. For what is set up at the beginning as an action film, there is a shocking amount of time spent watching tears well up in men’s eyes. Despite brooding performances across the board, The Guillotines never delivers on the promise of its premise. This is an action movie with very little action, a period piece with very little history, and the story of brothers and betrayal with very little earnest emotion. The whole thing plays out much more like a western than wuxia, and the stories never translate. Though the film looks fantastic, with each thematic setting getting its own color scheme, and Chan Kwong Wing’s string score is positively haunting, The Guillotines is scattered under its shiny exterior.

Everything comes together in a nice looking package—the Blu-ray transfer is a fantastic delivery system for Lau’s cinematography and shot composition—but there’s not a ton in the way of bonus features. There’s a making-of featurette that, while it’s not bad, isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before. You get the usual behind-the-scenes information and cast and crew talking in glowing terms about the film. There are extensive interviews with all the key players, including Lau, costume designer Dora Ng, and actors Huang Xioming, Ethan Juan, Shawn Yue, Boran Jing, and Li Yuchan.

5

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image