Starring: Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu Chia Hui
Reviewed by: Teri Tom (with an Asian Film 101 Course by Silman)
Rating (a 1 – 6 scale): 4.5
As Silman pointed out in a review (added at the bottom of this review), Kill Bill plays like a greatest hits collection of Asian cinema. It’s also got its share of Spaghetti Western, anime, and Blaxploitaton cues. For Cassavetes disciples, who despise genre films and complain that movies built on filmic references are hollow, dumb exercises in getting in-jokes, Kill Bill is their worst nightmare. Well, to use a Silman expression, these folks need to “unclench their buttocks” and just have fun with a film like Bill.
Everything comes from something, and as the saying goes: Talent borrows. Genius steals. Yes, Kill Bill is one uninterrupted stream of stolen elements, but like a great song cover, Quentin Tarantino has taken those elements and made them his own.
One of the great strengths of Kill Bill – and one of the ways in which it sets itself apart from the films from which it steals – is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Yes, it’s a pretty nasty revenge story. Yes, there’s a pretty somber anime sequence, a dead-serious climactic fight scene, and a solemn sword bequeathing. And I think Tarantino’s respect for the genre of samurai films is apparent in these scenes. The care given to them proves that he’s not just throwing out references and stolen goods and hoping that some of them will stick.
What Tarantino does so well is that he takes the more exaggerated elements of these genres – genres that often do take themselves too seriously – and creates some of the most absurdly hilarious concoctions – Uma willing her big toe into wiggling in the back of the Pussy Wagon. Daryl Hannah’s one-eyed California Mountain Snake in nurse disguise complete with eye patch. Like no one’s going to notice her in that get up with that eye patch! Sonny Chiba’s Laurel-and-Hardy-sushi routine as a front for his defunct sword-making business.
And while we’re at it, let’s talk about that blood. As Silman noted, folks unfamiliar with Asian cinema won’t be prepared for the geysers of blood spurting from severed limbs. Much has been made of the violence in Kill Bill, but any fool can see that it’s so exaggerated, so cartoonish, that it’s not meant to be taken seriously. Even the Crazy 88’s blood bath is filmed in black and white for our viewing comfort.
The fight scenes, by the way, are refreshingly light on the wirework and CGI. The choreography is really good, especially the all-out brawl between Uma and Vivica A. Fox. And schoolgirl Go Go’s ball and chain act is something you don’t see everyday.
Finally, I can’t end this review without commenting on the impeccable soundtrack. It’s not just good music, but its novel juxtaposition with images. My favorites: Lucy Liu and her Crazy 88’s strutting to some blazing 70’s horns and the big yakuza showdown set to a tune lifted right out of the Ennio Morricone songbook.
My only complaint about this DVD? It’s a great marketing ploy. This edition has hardly any extras, and we’ll have to wait for the big Kill Bill set for Quentin’s commentary. No, it’s not high art, but it’s a bloody good time.
Director Quentin Tarantino, Master Wo Ping and Uma Thurman on the set of Kill Bill Vol. 1
Quentin Tarantino and Sonny Chiba on the set of Kill Bill Vol. 1
In a way, Kill Bill is reminiscent of Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black. In that film a woman’s husband is murdered and she takes it upon herself to hunt down the killers and butcher them. However, the whole “revenge” kick plays a major part in endless Asian martial arts flicks, and any homage to Asian cinema would be fractured if he didn’t employ the same plot device here.
Mixing Yuen Wo Ping’s (The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon) usual brilliant choreography (allowing us to enjoy the many brisk fight scenes that addicted so many of us to this style of movie) with Robert Richardson’s cinematographic skills, we get the action we crave and the artistic nuance that’s often ignored in Western productions – washed out scenes one moment and others that are vibrant with color can symbolize a character’s emotional state or the general mood of what’s transpiring.
However, to really appreciate Kill Bill, you need to be made aware of the following Asian delights: O-Ren Ishii’s (Lucy Liu) childhood story pays homage to Japanese anime (cartoon). Uma Thurman’s yellow jumpsuit is a copy of what Bruce Lee wore in Game Of Death (Bruce died before he could complete that movie). Sword maker Hattori Hanzo is played by Sonny Chiba, one of Japan’s foremost action stars many years back (his The Streetfighter is a classic). On top of that, Chiba’s scenes introduce an important Japanese concept to the West: A master swordsman needs a peerless weapon, and a tiny bit of that mythology is looked at here.
Is that all? Not by a long shot! Rape is an oddly common theme in Asian film, and so Uma’s victimization is yet another “must.” The Kiss Of Death (later remade in the West as I Spit On Your Grave) is just one of many examples. And when Ms. Thurman’s “Bride” was shot and left for dead by five members of the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad,” we get a not too subtle reminder of the classic Five Deadly Venoms.
When “The Bride” faces off in a restaurant against eighty armed foes, we’re forced to compare it to a key scene in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and in so many other films that also featured the old “one vs. many” paradigm (check out our site reviews of Zatoichi and Lone Wolf and Cub if you want to explore other movies that feature one man versus tremendous odds).
By the way, some people thought it silly that a perfect, very tranquil Japanese-style garden greeted “The Bride” and “O-Ren Ishii” when they stepped out back for the final showdown after the big (and oh so frenetic) restaurant fight scene. What these confused puppies failed to understand was that the final showdown in Bruce Lee’s classic Fists Of Fury (also shown as The Chinese Connection) was also in a garden of this type.
Want more? Okay: Limbs flying and blood gushing? Tip your hat to Lone Wolf and Cub and other Samurai films, while the more contemporary work of director Takashi Miike (Ichi The Killer being one over the top example) also features a kind of frenetic action/violence that’s almost unheard of in the West. Who was that dude with the Green Hornet mask? None other than Gordon Liu Chia Hui, the bald-headed hero of the classic 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. And who was that deadly young woman in schoolgirl grab (we won’t even get into the genital mutilation!)? What, you haven’t watched Kinki Fukasaku’s cult favorite, Battle Royale? If you had, you would have recognized Chiaki Kuriyama from Battle, who seems very natural in such clothes. Before leaving Miss Kuriyama, I should mention that the ball and chain weapon she used against “The Bride” was highly reminiscent of the weapon featured in the classic Shaw Brothers movie One Armed Boxer vs. The Flying Guillotine.
There’s more, lots more (for instance, he borrowed bits and pieces of the music from many of these films), but I think you now have a greater appreciation for what Mr. Tarantino tried to achieve. Kill Bill can be looked at as a crash course in classic Asian/martial art cinema, as trash (if you simply refuse to educate yourself), as simply interesting (if such films are not to your taste), or as a masterpiece (though that label is something that only true fans of this genre can apply).