On December 20th, 2012, director Andrew Lau (Legend of the Fist) will dust off one of the most legendary weapons in Chinese cinema history with The Guillotines. This unique deadly weapon found notoriety in the US with Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) starring Jimmy Wang Yu. Quentin Tarantino said this is his favorite movie of all time. However, it was a couple years before Yu’s cult classic when director Ho Meng Hua surprised audiences everywhere with his very effective and original masterpiece. This was followed by one direct sequel, but the guillotine was featured in several otherfilms due to its popularity. My review below involves the original and its sequel.
In the film that started it all, Chen Kuan Tai plays Ma Teng, an assassin for Emperor Yung Cheng (a real historical Emperor) who is part of an elite hit squad trained to kill with the guillotine, which they do with blind devotion. When he realizes that he is killing good people, Ma decides to rebel against the Emperor and barely escapes the palace with his life. In his travels, he meets and falls in love with a singer Yu Ping and they try to start a life together. However, Ma’s former friends are now hunting him down and he must find a way to defend his home and defeat the dreaded guillotine. This is a very well-crafted film with some good political intrigue and decent heart. Not so much a Kung Fu extravaganza,but that’s forgivable since you have a powerful story with characters you care about. There are many decapitations, but it isn’t as bloody as you might think. Sometimes it’s a little corny to see people watch the guillotine land perfectly on their head and then start to panic, or try to escape by running in a straight line. If I saw a giant spiky thing heading toward me, I would gauge its trajectory and jump to the side at the last second. The Mythbusters themselves tested the weapon and, though they were successful in making a guillotine, it seemed generally impractical. That aside, it is still a fascinatingweapon that is supposed to have really existed. If you’re able to suspend your disbelief a little, you willhave a great time.
This film was a hit and a sequel was a no-brainer. However, sometimes things are not as easy as theyseem…
AKA Palace Carnage (an apt title also), this film takes place in the same world as the first film, but focuses more on a small group of rebels than Ma and his family, though he does get much more involved in the second half. The first thing you might notice is that this film has three writers, two directors, and different actors playing the returning characters. Apparently this film went through hell to get made. After starting with the original actors and Cheng Kang (The 14 Amazons) as the director,
the female lead, Lau Ng-kei, suddenly disappeared. No seriously, she was just gone without a trace. I say alien abduction. Then, after some footage was shot, Chen Kuan Tai left Shaw Brothers over some contract dispute. Fortunately, the very good actor Ti Lung (Blood Brothers, Drunken Master 2) was chosen to take over the role of Ma. Of course, the time it took to get Ti Lung and Chen Szu Chia, the actress now playing Ma Teng’s wife, Kang Cheng left to do other stuff, so now they needed a new director. Hua Shan took over and reshot much of the film, including all the action scenes involving Ma Teng. For what it is, this is still a good coherent sequel. It is also very bold. At first, Ma tries to stay out of the conflict. As much as he wants to kill the emperor, he also wants a good life for his child. But he soon gets forced to join the rebel group and take on the emperor that he once knew and respected.
The climactic showdown is worth the wait, the action is all very well shot, though I wished they hadmore resolution at the end. With more action, a dramatic story, and a big finale, this is still a quality filmdespite the behind-the-scenes mess.
So how will the new film do? It is stated that The Guillotines is not a remake, but a completelyoriginal story. With Lau at the helm and a good cast to boot, this new reimagining will no doubt bewell executed. In the meantime, check these films out. There are plenty of other films involving theguillotine, but I don’t think they match the quality of this one-two punch.
Note: They are unrated in the States, but these films would no doubt get R ratings for copious amountsof decapitations (very little arterial sprays though) and some quick shots of naked girls.
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