The Guillotines (2012) – By Duane L. Martin

From the opening of the film:

"The 5th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign, a rebel cult known as the "Herders" began assassinating Qing officials. Legend has it, their leader called Wolf, was a ruthless killer, a self-proclaimed prophet who promised his followers eternal life. To prevent the Herders rebellion from growing, the Imperial court dispatched The Guillotines to rid Qing of its final threat."

Essentially, the Qing Emperor formed a secret group of super fighters called The Guillotines whose job it was to kill political dissidents and enemies of the dynasty. The guillotines were basically raised together and had become like brothers. They were not allowed to learn to read or write in order to aid in their secrecy. They were incredible fighters though and used a variety of different and highly mechanical versions of the famous guillotine weapons.

The Guillotines are sent after the political dissident Wolf, who is a Han. The Han’s are considered supporters of the previous dynasty and have been relegated to a subjugated class of society, and Wolf has been rallying the people to fight against their mistreatment.

Leng is the field commander of the Guillotines. He and Haidu were selected as children to serve the young prince, who was approximately their age as well at the time. Leng was sent to serve the prince as a member of the Guillotines, while Haidu was raised with the prince to serve as a guard. Haidu and Leng considered each other to be brothers, but with the advent of firearms, the Emperor decided to replace the Guillotines with a firearms squad, and the Guillotines, now the dynasty’s dirty secret, were to all be executed to conceal that secret from the pages of history. When facts about Lengs past come to light however, and the truth behind Wolf’s motives turn out to be more righteous than they had been led to believe, Leng is trapped between his loyalty to his brothers in the Guillotines, his loyalty to the Emperor, and his friendship with Haidu. Unfortunately, Haidu is charged with the execution of the Guillotines, and doesn’t hesitate in carrying it out.

There’s a lot going on in this film, and a lot of different layers to the relationships, so I know the synopsis isn’t all that great. I just didn’t want to write up the whole film, and some of the relationships are just too complex to even get into in a synopsis. You can kind of get the gist of what it’s about though.

I have to say, I was actually a little worried about this film at the beginning. When the Guillotines are first sent after Wolf, there’s a big fight where we get to see them using all of their weapons. There are several different types of the guillotine weapons, and they each seem to be unique to the person using them. This fight scene included a LOT of CGI, which showed the internal mechanisms of the guillotines, as well as them flying and hitting people, etc… That’s fine for a fight scene like that, because that’s about all you can do if you want it to look really cool, but that kind of CGI won’t work if it’s used throughout a whole film, because I find that often times, it’s used as a crutch for a weak story.

That said, I’m happy to report that this film wasn’t actually flooded with CGI, and the story actually worked quite well. Naturally it was used for the guillotine scenes and other things, but the CGI never dominated the story, which was really nice to see, as the story itself was quite good, and was allowed to shine through.

One of the things I think they did particularly right with this story, is that they didn’t make the mistake of spreading the characterization so thin that you really couldn’t feel much for any of them. I’ve seen many films where there are a lot of characters, and they’ll put just enough focus on them all to make you want more, but there are too many of them for the film to give any of them any depth. This film had a lot of characters, but by severely limiting the focus to really just two Guillotines out of the entire team, plus the head commander of the team, it allowed the more important characters to stand out so the audience could identify with them. The rest of the team was present, but never focused on enough to detract from the main characters, which was an excellent way to deal with the story.

For his part, Wolf was a lone character in a sea of Han peasants and dissidents, all of whom would give their lives for him, but none of whom were focused on. He stood out amongst them much like a Jesus type character. He gave them hope and made them feel like they had a protector. He was kind to the children and all of them, even the elderly referred to him as Great Father. He literally was a father figure to them, and even though he had a great cause to want revenge against the dynasty, all he really wanted was to make life better for his people, in whatever way he had to do it. He didn’t delight in killing, he did it as a necessity when he had to. What was great about it is that one of the Guillotines, a girl named Musen who was the daughter of the main commander of the Guillotines, was captured by Wolf and his people. He allowed her to be beaten and bullied, and once her spirit was broken down enough for her to listen, he told her his story about how the Qings had killed his whole family on some trumped up, ridiculous charge. She understood then that she was on the wrong side and turned. Leng himself was turned in a way by Wolf, but more to the point, he was educated about why the people rebelled, and the only thing Wolf asked of him when he surrendered his life to him, was that he take that message to the Emperor, which he ultimately did.

The Han’s main village that they show in the film is a dirty and rather horrific place. Some of the people, including children, have small pox, and you can literally feel their desperation. In the mountains, there’s another hidden village full of Hans who are healthy and happy, working as farmers and providing for their own needs. It’s like Yin and Yang. One village happy and prosperous, the other desolate and full of sickness, and Wolf is in the middle of it all, trying to create the best life possible for the people. This stark contrast in the living conditions of the poeple shows the difference between how they can live when they’re hidden away from the government and left alone, and how subjugated they are when they’re living at the mercy of government oppression. There’s a powerful message in that contrast that shows the thought that was put into this story.

There were some people who were a bit disappointed with this film. I expect that it’s because they expected it to have a lot more scenes of guillotines flying around ripping people’s heads off. There is a bit of that here and there, but this is really a story driven film, and for those who can appreciate it and its messages, you’ll find it to be a pretty solid piece of film making.

The audio and visual quality on this release is stunning, which is something I’ve come to expect from Well Go USA releases, so I wasn’t surprised. For bonus features, this release includes a making of featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, an English language dubbed audio track that’s quite good, and the film’s trailer.

All in all, this is another great release from Well Go USA, and one that I can highly recommend. It’s got pretty much everything you could want. It’s got action, intrigue, a great story, and characters that have some depth to them. What more could you want?

If you’d like to find out more about this film, you can check out it’s page on the Well Go USA website here. If you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the blu-ray or DVD from Amazon, or from any of the other usual outlets.