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Non-Review Review: Kill Bill, Vol. 1

Kill Bill is an epic, but personal, work for Quentin Tarantino. It’s his Gangs of New York – a movie he’s clearly wanted to make in his own way for a very long time. It’s a tour through the cinematic locales which inform his filmmaking – though he uses Tokyo and Texas, and other names of real life locations, the film isn’t set in anywhere that really exists, or ever could exist, outside his own imagination. Kill Bill is a darkly violent and ultimately juvenile film, but one that was clearly well-loved and properly nurtured. It never ceases to impress, even while it makes you flinch.

Not quite mellow yellow...

Not quite mellow yellow...

Watching it now, for the first time since it came out, I had forgotten how relentlessly violent the first half of Tarantino’s revenge saga is. Limbs fly, tongues are torn out, blood sprays like fountains. It’s ridiculously gratuitous, but it is the perfect example of the realm where this work is set. Here the Bride (we won’t find out her real name until the second half) pursues the men and (mostly) women who took her husband and child from her into the darkest realms of celluloid. Her pursuit here is contained mostly to neon Tokyo and bright American suburbia, lit in bright shades we only really see if we turn the saturation way up in our mind’s eye. Next time (as the cheesy trailer, that would accompany this movie were it a real exploitation flick, would announce), she will chase them into the barren wastelands of Sergio Leone’s Western and the dull urban sprawl of an American seventies exploitation flick.

In each of these celluloid realms, the laws of phsyics and biology work differently. The blood stains of brutality in American suburbia give way to the blood fountains of a Japanese sword fantasy. Similarly the crude and blunt modes of combat change as well, from the kitchen knives and guns we see in the opening scenes to the samurai swords of the later sequences. So too change the laws of gravity and momentum; in a brightly painted home,  tables and ornaments and thrown and smashed, the environment is a hazard itself, but in Tokyo the Bride can almost fly and is unhampered by the cluttered restaurant (the only environmental damage done is to the paper shutters).

I described the movie as a labour of love, and it is. Despite all the craziness and the disturbing tonal shifts and the even more disturbing violence contained in the film’s runtime, it is certain that this film was loved by those creating it. And that sense of joy and fun soaks through ever frame of the movie, allowing the audience to forgive some strange structural choices or the very bizarre shifts in visual style we see throughout. Kill Bill is a movie without a centre, without an anchor holding itself together.

Not that Uma Thurman doesn’t try. She gives one the best performances of her career, making the Bride nearly the only character in the film (everyone else is a cutout, a reference, a plot device or a filter, or some combination). The problem is that the movie relies on the Bride’s quest for revenge to engage us and to hold it all together. It just about manages to do that, but barely. I described the film above as somewhat juvenile. You might think I was making a cheap shot at Tarantino’s influences or his style – I was not. I was speaking about he treatment of the notion of vengeance, a prickly topic to deal with in any form, let alone in a brightly coloured, gratuitously violent style. Here he shows no real appreciation of what vengeance is (beyond some vague metaphors mumbled at the end by cult actor Sonny Chiba). That takes maturity and consideration, which he had earned by the time he returned to the theme in Inglourious Basterds.

I’m tempted to observe that the movie goes over the top, but we all know that Tarantino has no top. His skewed view of the world of film bleeds through on every frame. It’s the little touches, like the fact that several people on the Bride’s plane to Tokyo are carrying samurai swords, or the fact that every bike seems to come with a holster for one, or the way that the Bride flies on a model airplane against a matte-painted background of the type we haven’t seen used in decades.

There’s a climactic scene which take place in a Tokyo restaurant, where the evening’s entertainment – a Japanese girl band – are playing their version of “Woo Hoo”, a 1959 American rock ‘n’ roll classic. It’s perhaps the most brilliant depiction of what Tarantino does here: he’s an American filmmaker, filtering through a Japanese stylistic sensibility itself inherited from an old American model. It’s brilliantly reflexive and skewed and bizarre. Even Bill and his Vipers are a twisted reflection of Charlie’s Angels (here, for example, Bill’s face isn’t even seen). Tarantino knows exactly what’s doing and is perfectly able to emulate any number of exploitation and outdated subcultural styles of film making. The biggest problem here is that he seems content to simply emulate rather than elaborate (a similar sensibility would be the biggest problem with Death Proof and would thankfully be rectified by Inglourious).

Does the film suffer from being on its own? Undoubtedly. There’s enough mood dissonance between this and the second part to justify splitting them, but the dissonance is intentional. Thurman is meant to journey from the unambiguous and reckless carnage of the Tokyo scenery into the decidedly morally ambiguous wild west. The audience is meant to feel a little whiplash when she is transformed from the moral hero against a definite bad guy to the anti-hero among equals in the second half. That’s why I’ll be reviewing The Whole Bloody Affair separately if/when it comes out.

Tarantino is a skilled director. Here he choreographs fantastically “in your face” action sequences with loving references to all the best moment in the particular genre he has set his mind to – check out the two final swordfights for example, they are truly breathtaking and eat up a solid forty-five minutes of screentime. He also has a continued knack for dialogue, with a small scene in a bar in Okinowa with a retired swordsmith being possibly my favourite scene in this half of the film. The only thing better is arguably the soundtrack selection, pulling together the one-million-and-one genres and styles the movie seems to want to emulate (from Ennio Morricone to Japanese pop).

It’s a solid and fascinating film, particularly if you can get past the rather large gore and violence threshold. It succeeds by its own standards: it’s a mainstream emulation of trashy subgenres by a director who is arguably more talented than even he realises. The problem is that it doesn’t do anything new or daring, or even provide us with a particularly deep insight into these old tricks. It’s content to be a scrapbook, featuring pages copied and pasted from dozens of different sources with no annotation.

It certainly isn’t the best work from this director, but it is one that merits attention. It certainly offers enough to viscerally entertain and possibly even spark some debate and discussion.

______________________________________________

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 is the first half of the Kill Bill saga, directed by Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds, Pulp Fiction) and starring Uma Thurman (Batman & Robin, The Truth About Cats and Dogs), Michael Madsen (Reservoir Dogs, Donnie Brascoe), Lucy Liu (Payback, Ally McBeal), David Carradine (Kung-Fu, Kill Bill, Vol. 2) and Daryl Hannah (Bladerunner). It was released in the USA on 10th October 2003 and was released a week later in the UK and Ireland on 17th October 2003.

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One Response

  1. Check out “David Carradine: The Eye of My Tornado”. The book will investigate Carradine’s tragic death in a Bangkok hotel.

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