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August 06, 2013

The Guillotines

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Xue di zi
Andrew Lau - 2012
Well Go USA Entertainment Region 1 DVD

A generous budget and computer generated imaging, plus the inclusion of Jimmy Wang Yu, don't make up for the charm of the Shaw Brothers martial arts movies with their often rickety special effects. The film is also something of a tribute to Lau's roots, beginning his career for the Shaws thirty years earlier. This is certainly a handsome film, but I wish I could say it was more exciting.

The idea of the guillotines is certainly eye catching. Metal devices that look almost like flying sickles, are hurled towards a person, wrapping around the neck completely like dog collars from hell, with internal blades that decapitate the unlucky victim. Then there is the fraternity known as the Guillotines, an elite squad working on behalf of the emperor. The film takes place a short time after 1735, the era of the Qianlong Emperor. The Guillotines are considered expendable by the new emperor, in favor of using western means to enforce his rule - guns and cannons. The one female Guillotine, Musen, is kidnapped by a rebel gang known as the Herders, led by a man known as Wolf. The Guillotines are led by Haidu and Leng, two childhood friends who are also lifelong friends of the young emperor. When Musen is considered a traitor, the loyalties of Haidu and Leng are tested.

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Wolf kidnaps Musen in response to the death of his own love, a woman warrior, Bailan. The two actresses, Li Yuchun as Musen, and Vivien Li as Bailan, visually make the greatest impression. Thematically, there is a sense of connection to the Infernal Affairs trilogy, with stories hinging on male camaraderie and loyalty. There is frequent discussion about the sense of brotherhood. Haidu and Leng are shown as children as part of several flashbacks, showing how they were chosen for their court positions, with the now adult men discussing how their lives might have been different had each been given the other's role. The ethnic conflict between the Manchu court and Han Chinese might be perplexing to those unfamiliar with Chinese history.

Even while the story is not always compelling, there is something impressive about the Shanxi locations, a mountainous region in mainland China. Although there are thematic elements that The Guillotines shares with past films by Andrew Lau, he came to the production replacing Teddy Chen. The cast is mostly newer, lesser known pan-Chinese actors from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Li Yuchun is the one to watch, having made her mark with three action films, previously appearing in Tsui Hark's Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Li is also heard on the soundtrack with a Hong Kong Film Awards nominated song, and is definitely one to watch.

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Posted by peter at August 6, 2013 07:47 AM