Make no mistake, Andrew Lau's The Guillotines is an epic tale of honor, brotherhood, sacrifice and betrayal, set in Qing Dynasty era China. There are enough sword fights, chases through crowded streets and sprawling battles to satisfy any action aficionado. However, it's also a bit confusing and incoherent, and leans a bit too heavily on bathos. All in all, a mixed bag.
The Guillotines are a group of assassins, sent out to eliminate the enemies of the emperor, so called because of the razor sharp, boomerang type weapons they use to decapitate their victims. Their young leader is Leng (Ethan Juan), and the heart of the group is Musen (Yuchun Li), a young woman whose father is the commander of the group. The Guillotines are steadily being eclipsed by new technology, specifically the Firearms Squad, led by Leng's blood brother Haidu (Shawn Yue).
The Guillotines have been sent to bring to justice the rebel Wolf (Xiaoming Huang), who leads a group of Han Chinese called the Herders. Han Chinese are considered second class citizens by the ruling Manchurian ethnic group, and that disparity of privilege and power is a strong theme that runs through the film. Of course, things are not exactly as they seem, and Leng and his group's loyalty is tested, as Wolf turns out to be an entirely different man than they at first thought, as do Haidu and the Emperor.
Perhaps it takes a certain amount of cultural knowledge that I don't have to fully appreciate the complexities of the story here, but things often happen for reasons that escaped me. Not to mention that, aside from Leng and Haidu, the numerous young male characters were not drawn particularly distinctly, making it difficult to feel much when one of them dies, or even keep straight which one it was.
While the plot is constructed well enough to move forward smoothly, much of the drama seems manufactured, and relies too much on the weeping bathos of men mourning their lost comrades and lamenting the betrayal of those they thought friends and allies. Lots of lingering shots of men in the depths of emotional trauma do not equal a compelling story, nor do they necessarily tug our heartstrings or make us empathize with these characters.
That's not to say that there isn't a lot of cool stuff here. The action scenes are intricate, exciting and fun, despite the use of some cheesy CG at times. The practical effects are very well done, but the animated guillotine devices flying through the air take the viewer out of the moment. For the most part, the characters are likeable and well portrayed, but the story (despite its fine pacing) simply doesn't cohere enough for the viewer to care very much about what happens to them.
In short, The Guillotines is a technically well executed epic story, that is beautifully shot, and a joy to watch, but isn't very engaging dramatically. Recommended, but mostly for how good it looks.
Interviews with Cast and Crew