The Guillotines is a film that, put quite simply, doesn’t even try to be good. Conceived as slick entertainment with ambitious overtones and narrative width. It lacks the courage or the vision needed to deliver. As a result, it leaves the viewer with nothing but delusion and boredom.
Hard to be an assassin
The Guillotines (Am Muu Hoang Toc) is set in the 18th century: Qing China is menaced by a sect of Han Chinese, whose leader is a Christ-like figure with a knack for righteous violence.
A group of elite assassins known as the Guillotines is on the hunt. But the hunters are also hunt: as it turns out. These secret weapons are a black stain on the Emperor’s honor and need to be deleted from history books.
Truth be told, The Guillotines could’ve been nothing more than a string of action sequences stitched together in a quick narrative patchwork. Instead, Lau leaves most of the action (and the digital effects budget) for the first few minutes of the film. Where we can see the dreaded guillotine in action. Roughly the same one we saw in the Shaw Brothers’ movies of the ‘70s.
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, has nothing interesting to tell. Imperial plots, political metaphors and pretentious twists are the messy material that prominent Hong Kong director Andrew Lau has to handle. There’s not much to salvage, aside from a few spectacular action sequences and jaw-dropping landscapes.
A great director, not at his best
Andrew Lau is mostly known for the Infernal Affairs crime thriller trilogy (the first of which was remade by Martin Scorsese in another great movie, The Departed). And is one of the most innovative action directors of Hong Kong. However, he is not the best storyteller and what this film really lacks, sense of restraint aside, are a compelling story and relatable characters.
The only character who does not feel fully cartoonish is the leader of the rebels, Wolf (Huang Xiaoming). He is a prophet and a herder of the Han community in the Manchu China of Qing Dinasty. A unique personality, whose existence in the film is sadly subordinate to a rigid allegory of imperialism in China and violence as a means of political stability. It is hardly original material.
All in all, not one of the several themes the movie touches is tackled seriously: racism. The bond between violence and real politik, faith, dehumanization as a result of technology (guillotines, firearms… and CGI. Which makes blood and violence feel entertaining and distant) are treat like narrative LEGO to toy with, nothing more.
The Guillotines (phim vo thuat) wants to be epic. But lacks the most basic requirement for a myth: the capacity to touch the human soul with a timeless story and relatable, universal emotions.