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‘Xue Di Zi’

by Kaori Shoji

During the Qing Dynasty, the Yongzheng Emperor was so suspicious of his courtiers and paranoid about dissenters that he established a secret squad that went about with portable guillotines — bladed wheels that could decapitate an opponent instantly. “Xue Di Zi” (released in the West as “The Guillotines”) revisits this episode in Chinese history, giving it a modern slant and dipping it in a huge vat of CGI. Director Andrew Lau Wai-Keung (“Infernal Affairs”) amply displays his flair for weaving intrigue and betrayal into a heavily macho situation.

Xue Di Zi (Flying Guillotine)
Rating
Director Andrew Lau Wai-Keung
Language Mandarin (subtitled in Japanese)

In the movie, the Guillotine unit’s days are numbered. Having enjoyed elite status during the reign of Yongzheng (Lau), they are in danger of being overshadowed by Western technology and firearms favored by succeeding emperor Qianlong (Zhang Wen). Yet the newbie wants to deploy the Guillotines to terrorize his Chinese subjects while building a modernized army to combat offshore foes.

The Guillotines were familiar figures in many a 1980s and ’90s Hong Kong kung-fu film, where the emphasis was on how fast the heads rolled. In Lau’s version, the weapon looks practically sci-fi, with a rotating sliver of a deadly blade that holds the victim’s neck in a vice grip before …