I finally caught Kill Bill last night with a couple friends, and have been thinking about it quite a bit since then. First of all, Kill Bill is the probably the closest that “mainstream” American audiences (or as close to the mainstream as a Tarantino film approaches) have ever come to real, old school kung fu action. And no, the Matrix movies and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon don’t count. This is straight up Shaw Brothers action, from the camera movements to the geysers of blood to the way in which characters die. And of course, to the film’s bleakness.
American fans have been spoiled, I think, by the films of Jackie Chan, and they think that’s what kung fu movies are. No offense to Chan, but his movies are, by and large, not kung fu movies (unless you go back farther into his career than the past 10 years). They’re action movies with healthy doses of martials arts, acrobatics, and Chan’s trademark physical comedy. However, if you go back to the films that inspired Kill Bill — films like Chinese Super Ninjas, Invincible Pole Fighter, Shaolin Master Killer, Duel to the Death, The Sword, etc. — they’re actually very bleak films about the price of honor, loyalty, and revenge.
Sure, the action is insanely over the top (the final battle in Duel to the Death is like Kill Bill meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but with an army of exploding ninjas and the music of S.S. Bountyhunter thrown in for good measure), the blood is extremely plentiful and extremely fake, and the dubbing often atrocious to the point of being comical. But if you really think about their plots, they can be quite tragic. Usually, the “hero” of the film ends up getting his revenge, but only at the loss of his life, the loss of everyone and everything he holds dear, and/or his complete alienation from society at large. And there might even be some insanity in there as well.
I truly wasn’t prepared for just how much this film hurt to watch. Sure, there were plenty of times when people were laughing at the carnage, and I chuckled at a few points, but mainly out of shock. More often than not, I was cringing as I watched the screen. The Bride and Vernita going at it in the living room, the Bride getting her revenge on Buck with the help of a steel door… those scenes are brutal. But they have nothing on The Bride’s duel with GoGo Yubari (the ball n’ chain wielding schoolgirl from the trailer). There, you hear and feel every time that metal ball connects with the Bride’s chest, the air exploding from her lungs. The sound effects during this duel were brilliant (even down to the Six Million Dollar Man effects as they jumped from table to table).
I loved the final duel between The Bride and O-Ren Ishii, which is straight out of a samurai film (another genre to which Kill Bill owes a huge debt). Whereas the battles in kung fu movies are full of movement, with characters jumping and flailing about, samurai battles are more like chess games. Opponents slowly circle eachother, each trying to outthink the other as they carefully position their bodies and swords for that one, perfect killing stroke. They strike, and if noone falls, they leap back and go at it again, carefully and methodically. I love how the entire pace of the film slows down for this fight scene, the only sounds coming from the crunch of the snow and O-Ren’s pond. It comes right after the chaos of The House of Blue Leaves, and takes the film to a completely different level.
I left the film shellshocked, not at the bloodshed, but because you see what this vengeance is costing the Bride. After she slew O-Ren, The Bride looked like she had aged about 25 years as she stumbled over to a bench, her sword dropping from her numb fingers. At the same time, you realize the horror that has driven her to this point. When the Bride wakes up and realizes that she’s lost her baby, the pain and anguish in her entire body is devastating. Tarantino never casts the violence as a good thing — as a necessary thing, perhaps, from the Bride’s viewpoint — but not as something to be admired. Even though it’s obvious he (and, by all accounts, the entire cast and crew) had an absolute blast spraying each and every drop of blood across the screen.
What else is there? How about the music? Everyone I talked to who has seen the film sounded this close to going out and buying the soundtrack. From Nancy Sinatra’s sultry “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” to the surf-rock of the 5,6,7,8’s (the trio rocking the House of Blue Leaves), from Bernard Hermann to The RZA — and especially Tomoyasu Hotei’s “Battle Without Honor of Humanity” (the song from the trailer that, when you hear it in the movie, lets you know that a large amount of fecal matter is going to hit the fan very soon) — Kill Bill’s music is amazing. And it’s non-stop, playing at virtually every moment of the film and defining it, from the haunting flute that plays while The Bride and Hattori Hanzo discuss samurai swords to the mariachi music in The Bride and O-Ren’s final showdown to the Japanese lament that plays during the credits like a ghost from Seijin Suzuki’s films.
There is brilliant camerawork throughout this movie. The fight scenes are stupendous, but one shot in particular just did it for me. In one long tracking shot, the camera follows the Bride up, over, and through walls as she moves through the House Of The Blue Leaves, only to travel all the way back, past the 5,6,7,8’s onstage, and latch onto one of O-Ren’s subordinates as she retraces the path The Bride took. Which of course leads to the movie’s big confrontation. It’s an amazing shot that just holds you riveted, and it’s fuelled by the 5,6,7,8’s catchy riffs.
So what doesn’t work in the movie, you might ask? Kill Bill is essentially an exercise in style and nothing more. There are things that happen simply and only because they’re happening in a movie, and not just in any movie, but a Tarantino movie, and not just any Tarantino movie, but Kill Bill. But there were times when it got too stylized, to the point where the characters simply became cardboard cutouts that spewed bad-ass lines and dismembered people.
Being a Tarantino film, Kill Bill’s story is of course non-linear. But unlike Pulp Fiction, where the the film’s non-linearity raised questions and caused you to really think and wonder about the characters, Kill Bill’s jumbled narrative felt like it was done simply because Taranino knew people were expecting it from him. It’s cool to see the film jump back 4 years, ahead 6 months, back 2 weeks, and then return to where it began, but nothing more.
And this is a minor quibble, but I really wish the fight at the House of Blue Leaves hadn’t switched to black and white partway through, though I understand Tarantino probably did that so he could get it past the MPAA. Which ultimately says just as much about the MPAA’s hypocrisy (everyone knows that’s blood being splattered across the screen, but as long as it’s not any shade of red it’s okay) as it does about Tarantino’s filmmaking.
However, my biggest gripe is that I wish the film hadn’t been cut into two parts. In the first half, all you get is the action. However, you get barely any backstory into any of these characters. You get hints — when The Bride and Vernita sit down and hash things out over coffee or the brutal animation sequence about O-Ren’s violent childhood — but that’s all. I really hope things get more fleshed out in the second movie, because the first half is so intense it needs that backstory to put everything in perspective.
Having hashed through the good and the bad, do you know what the most memorable moment in Kill Bill was for me? It was watching the credits — that’s right, the credits — and seeing all of those Asian names, from China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Lord knows where else. When I saw Sonny Chiba (who played the dignified swordsmith, Hattori Hanzo), Gordon Liu (who played the leader of the Crazy 88’s), and Yuen Woo-Ping’s (action choreographer extraordinaire) names appear, I almost shouted for joy. And I smiled as I saw the countless names from the Beijing crew, the Tokyo crew, I.G. Productions, and others scroll by, right on down to the film’s dedication to the likes of Kinji Fukasaku (who directed many a samurai and yakuza film, as well as the infamous Battle Royale) and Chang Cheh (whose geysers of blood served as Kill Bill’s template).
It’s obvious that Tarantino’s homage wasn’t just that. He went to the source, to the people who influenced his vision and gave them roles in shaping it. That’s why this film doesn’t just feel like an American attempt to capture the craziness of Asian cinema, but why it’s as close to the real thing as most Westerners are likely to come. But for those of us who have been in love with Asian cinema — be it kung fu epics, yakuza films, or samurai slices n’ dices — Kill Bill is just a reminder of why we love that stuff so much in the first place.
Probably the highest praise I can give Kill Bill is that it reignited my love for kung fu films… not that it had ever really died, but sometimes these things need a little jump start. As soon as I got home from the theatre, I picked up Richard Meyers’ Great Martial Arts Movies and was up until 2:30 the next morning, going through my modest DVD collection and watching bits from the likes of The Blade and Fong Sai Yuk. But for people who have never seen those movies, but whose minds (and heart rates) have been fired up by Kill Bill, I hope this movie will open them up to the countless films that Tarantino has so lovingly and tenderly ripped off.