Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 07, 2013 10:59 pm 
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Glorious if somewhat confusing Hong Kong historical epic of conflicting loyalties and the cruelty of power

The Guillotines, directed by Hong Kong vet Andrew Lau (of Infernal Affairs) and with some accomplished and striking-looking actors, is a Manchu Qing Dynasty (mid-eighteenth-century) warriors tale about a gang of trained killers, called "the Guillotines," sent to wipe out an enemy Han populist shepherd group called the "Herders." The twist is that while out in the country doing their duty, the Guillotines find themselves abandoned by the emperor Qianlong (Wen Zhang) because he or his head bodyguard Haidu (Shawn Yue) thinks their "guillotine" killing method is too bloody and out of date. In some ways this film is glorious and original, but it is also another example of how Hong Kong movies today so often excel in the acting and production categories but are waylaid by a faulty narrative structure. This scenario was worked on by no less than six different writers, and what seems conventional at first, and then becomes interesting, dissolves partially into incoherence.

The "guillotines" are an idea used before (by the Shaw brothers with whom Lau got his start). They are flying helmets used by teams of assassins that behead people, and they're very nifty devices as seen in the first few minutes, if obviously computer-generated; but anyway they are largely dropped, despite the title, about twenty minutes in. In fact this is much more of a dramatic film, relatively light on the combat by wuxia standards, packed with male bonding and soulful conflict, and not so much the usual series of fabulous costumed martial arts sequences -- which is welcome enough, were it not for the sometimes faltering thrust of the narrative. Constant flashbacks -- a natural epic device, common in Chinese historical films -- meant to clarify background, also just as often interrupt and muddle the main action here.

As Asian film expert Derek Elley explains (more fully) in his summary and review -- invaluable here to help one wade through the plot complexities and sort out the historical background -- the Guillotines are a half dozen dedicated government killes hired by the Manchu emperor and assigned to secretly wipe out the populist Han "Herders," an anti-regime gang of quasi-religiously dedicated thugs led by the legendary Tianlang ("Wolf," Huang Xiaoming, with dramatically wild, long hair). Led by "Wolf", the Herders are winning the hearts and minds of the peasants and killing government officials. In village shadow plays Tianlang is portrayed as a savior, and we see him wrapped in a white robe, surrounded by children with small pox, and told he will die young -- his Christlike aura pushed a bit far.

Scenes shift back and forth between the emperor, the Guillotines, and most of all the romantic Herders, who roam a breathtakingly pretty landscape (partly evocative of traditional Westerns) and rest up in teeming villages, worshipped by the locals who hover around in uniform dusty garb like figures in a Soviet socialist realism painting (with a touch of Breugel). The liberal mixing of sequences and flashbacks makes it occasionally hard to follow the timeline, but obviously central importance is given early on to Tienlang's relationship with the Guillotines' one female member (Chris Lee), whom he captures and tortures after escaping from them, apparently to toughen her. She becomes a convert to peaceful country Han life.

It's Haidu, the Emperor's chilly chief bodyguard, who emerges as the putative central character, if not the most sympathetic one. He represents the new world order, because he seeks to oust the Guillotines, replace them with his own people armed with western-style rifles, and fight the Qing dynasty's enemies with newer weapons. Also given much attention is Nala Leng (Ethan Ruan), Guillotine leader, who is not only squared off against Haidu but has conflicting loyalties to begin with and a curious bond with Tianlang because he was an orphan of Han origins who, as dramatically lit flashbacks show us, was taught as a small, shaven-headed boy to forget his original name -- but never quite gave in and still hankers for the pure Han life.

The movie becomes a war of clans, of town and country, and a Luddite's sad tale of new-fangled weaponry destroying the human scale of battle when it was blades, not explosives. It's also, even more, perhaps, a battle of virtuoso, or if you like ham, actors, powerful characters and personalities who get to do their various and splendid operatic turns, arms waving, tears flowing, gazes intense. In the background in many scenes are also a host of vigorous younger actors who seem to be improvising freely, having a lot of fun a times, and giving the film, despite its genre's natural artificiality and impossibly lovely visuals, a surprisingly relaxed, vérité feel at times, which makes for a very nice effect indeed.

Even if martial arts nuts will be frustrated, this is a Hong Kong costume epic not to be missed. But given the way its story line meanders perhaps it's best simply to lay back and let it wash over you, enjoy the gorgeous visuals and soulful drama and not try to follow all the story threads, because once again, the scenario is such a patchwork and so much a committee effort that it is almost as baffling to follow as Wong Kar-wai's ultra-stylized Ashes of Time, but without its relative simplicity of focus and concentration of mood. The beauty of the natural landscape and dramatically lit interiors, the passionate acting, and the handsome young men are always there, though. And the sublime melancholy, amid all the action, of an old era fading away and taking with it the purity of the pastoral life.

Toward the end the complicated threads of the too many subplots are set aside for some "good-old-fashioned spectacle," as Elley puts it, when Yue's character, the chief bodyguard, clad in impressive Manchu armor, leads the army in a fiery battle against the charismatic, wild thug "Herders" And so though you've watched something rather helter-skelter, you can walk out of the theater satisfied that things have been resolved in traditional fashion.

The Guillotines opens in limited US release June 14, 2013, including the Four Star Theater in San Francisco. It became available in VOD May 15. The use of 3D -- I did not watch it that way -- is reportedly unimpressive, and hardly needed once the throwing of the frisbee-like beheading gizmos in the first reel is over. DVD viewers need not worry.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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