Kill Bill, Volume 1

| October 15, 2003

WHAM! A roundhouse to the head of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon despite its excessive beauty (and extreme slowness); KAAPOW! A rabbit-punch in the kidneys of Jackie Chan (the funniest thing out of Asia most of the time); SMASH! A swan kick to John Woo (master of all he surveys pre-Hollywood move); BOSH! There goes Keanu ‘I know Kung-Fu’ Reeves; oh that one must have hurt. Here comes Quentin Tarantino riding out of the East to put the blood and guts back into (or, rather, torn out of) our kung fu/ samurai/ anime adventures once again. Before I begin here can I just say GO SEE THIS MOVIE forget all your POINTLESS bleating about violence and worrying about BLOOD and head down to your local multiplex to see why QT got 6 years and far too many million dollars to kind of do what he wanted (and what Hong Kong filmmakers have been doing for years for cheaper)–get down bloody and personal. Forget plot, dialogue, storyline, character–these things are not at issue here. Pastiche, gore, more gore, material violence, jokes, Scorcese tributes and a cracking soundtrack are what you get–and, to be frank, and speaking as someone who has taught Pulp Fiction at University, these things are the real reason everyone likes Tarantino. The rest is just window-dressing, intellectualising the films in a way they resist, justifying watching violent films in a way that Tarantino himself derides. In terms of raw, visceral, loud, dynamic cinema you won’t see much better this year.
Of course, that doesn’t make it a masterpiece. But this is a film which seems to evade the more intellectual issues that Tarantino has been collared by, and instead revel in its own stupidity, vacuity and emptiness. It is all surface and no substance, no character, no ‘reality’–no names, even. The movie simply reflects. It isn’t a dumb film, but an unthinking one–and by refusing to be drawn into ‘classic’/’masterpiece’/’critical acclaim’ territory, by celebrating (rather than archly mimicking) the pulp violence of the genre, the film is less clunky and more dynamic than other of Tarantino’s canon.
The film continually evades scholarly taxonomisation, refusing to be classified and pigeonholed. It is too dynamic and blunt for that. Opening with a quotation about revenge attributed to the Klingons (and echoing the opening of Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai), we are plunged into suburban warfare as Thurman’s Bride character goes seeking out her ‘killers’, those who beat her and left her for dead when pregnant four years ago. The first one we see her dispatch is knifed in her kitchen, and from thereon in ‘normal’, ‘safe’ clean America is consigned to history. This America has vengeance and Hong Kong Samurai plots–Thurman turns to the girl whose mother she has just killed and tells her she will be waiting for her if she chooses vengeance, anticipating an escalation and continuation of the near mythic conflict of the film.
We then go back in time and encounter Lucy Liu’s violent assassin and thousands of bonkers swordsmen intent on eviscerating the Bride. The climactic sequence in a purpose-built nightclub is both idealised–switching into black and white for a moment–and visceral. Thurman dispatches her opponents with aplomb, but a shot over her back reveals them groaning and bleeding, a traumatic revisioning of the scene which recalls the famous hospital shot in Gone with the Wind. The violence here is cartoonish but bloody. This is not the opening salvo of Saving Private Ryan, but rather something which meditates on savagery whilst savouring the roundhouse slash which kills the 35th henchman.
There is a key moment during the climactic fight between Liu and Thurman where the Bride in her Game of Death yellow tracksuit chases after Oren-Ishi in her Crouching Tiger robes before scalping her–encapsulating the film’s celebration of the clean, harsh violence of early Bruce Lee very much above the slow, cerebral westernisation of Hong Kong filmmaking indulged in by Ang Lee. The swish and dance of Liu’s fetishised Tokyo assassin is brutally crushed under the weight of Thurman’s raw avenger (her final caper the slow-motion arc of her scalped hair through the snow, both beautiful and horrific). Yet this eclipse of the balletic and spiritual comes in a cartoonish world where all criminals carry Samurai swords (even on the plane) and employ private armies wearing Green Hornet masks. The cartoon is bloody and gory, but equally idealised. Indeed, the anime section is possibly the bloodiest thing I’ve seen at a mainstream cinema, but is more easily dealt with because of its idealisation/ unrealness–suggesting, along the way, that it is not the events of violent cinema that unsettle us but their veracity.
A few caveats: the importing of stars and fashion from Battle Royale shows admirable taste but the sequence with the wrecking ball is just a bit odd; whilst it is in parody/pastiche mode, the sequence when Thurman’s Bride gets her sword is a bit pointless and underwritten, as well as deploying some Japanese stereotypes that really died many years ago; why, really, two parts? No, really, why? It all makes no real sense, and encourages a belief (underlined by the rather vainglorious ‘The Fourth Film by Quentin Tarantino’ auteur nonsense which is part of the opening credits–?!) that Tarantino is an arrogant MF. Which he obviously is but generally not in this kind of proud way. That said, he doesn’t appear in this one for which we can all be grateful.

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