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A Man Called Sanjuro 3

"Sanjuro Kills Bill - Well, Not Really"*
"Damn you, Tarantino!"
"This is your punishment for not liking Charlie's Angels 2."
"Go go, gadget flail!"

*DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed within this column amount to little more than random words floating in the ether. Even so, the writer would like his readers to know that he is not an employee of Miramax nor is he a close, personal friend of Quentin Tarantino. Hell, he doesn't even have a development deal with Disney. He just liked Kill Bill a lot and wanted to share his thoughts. Those who are incensed by this writer's taste in movies are encouraged to take several deep breaths and drop the issue entirely. Really, it's not worth losing your temper over. It's just a movie, folks. But if you simply must, you may contact him here. Compliments are encouraged, but not expected.

     If there's one potential obstacle preventing Kill Bill: Volume 1 from winning over the hearts and minds of Hong Kong cinema fans everywhere, it's the name of the company that's releasing it: Miramax Films. The much-maligned studio's deplorable treatment of the Chinese movies it has purchased has provoked the ire of many a HK movie fan. And if there's a second possible barrier to Kill Bill garnering acceptance from this close-knit, esoteric group, it would have to do with a general dislike for the film's director, Quentin Tarantino. Some HK cinema cultists are still miffed at the manic auteur due to the similarities between his film Reservoir Dogs and Ringo Lam's earlier Hong Kong film, City on Fire. But even if you fall into either the anti-Miramax or anti-Tarantino camp (or both), the shenanigans of neither of these two should serve as a deterrent from checking out Kill Bill: Volume 1, a deliriously over-the-top tribute to the cult films of yesteryear.
     A discussion of the plot of Kill Bill is somewhat hampered by the loopy, disjointed narrative that characterized Tarantino's earlier films, but here's the basics: the film centers on "The Bride" (Uma Thurman), a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DIVAS), an R-rated Charlie's Angels-type outfit headed by the enigmatic Bill (an unseen David Carradine). It seems that four years ago, Bill and the rest of his assassin buddies gunned down the pregnant Bride along with everyone else in attendance at her wedding. The reasons for the hit are unclear, but somehow, the Bride survived. After awaking sans baby in a Texas hospital many years later, the Bride dedicates herself to a single purpose: revenge.
     On her quest for bloody retribution, the Bride travels to Okinawa and enlists the help of Hattori Hanzo (the great Sonny Chiba), a master swordmaker moonlighting as the world's funniest sushi chef. After a month of training, the Bride takes her katana and makes her assault on the House of Blue Leaves. Her target: former DIVAS member and current leader of the Yakuza, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). However, before the showdown with O-Ren, the Bride has to cut through an armada of masked, Kato-inspired henchmen as well as the cute, but disturbingly sadistic GoGo Yubari (Battle Royale's Chiaki Kuriyama). And cut through them she does. Alas, the real conclusion will have to wait until Volume 2.
     Proclaiming that Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a movie for people who really love movies isn't an entirely accurate statement—it's actually tailor-made for a special kind of crowd. It's for people who love Spaghetti Westerns, bloody Chang Cheh flicks, and off-the-wall anime. It's for filmgoers who have an affinity for blaxploitation pictures and go around quoting Sam Raimi's Evil Dead series to their friends. This is a flick for chambara addicts, Zatoichi aficionados, and folks who just couldn't get enough of the shockingly bloody finale of Sanjuro. In short, it's the ultimate film geek experience.
     Volume 1 is certainly a bold film to say the least. Not many filmmakers would have the guts or the clout to put a Japanese language-only anime sequence (of O-Ren Ishii's origin) right smack dab in the middle of a mainstream, live action film. In fact, the sheer amount of sequences with English-subtitled, Japanese language-only dialogue is astounding. This decision to allow the characters to speak as they naturally would rather than forcing the Japanese actors to recite all their lines in broken English is a refreshing change of pace from the standard "East Meets West" Hollywood picture. Even better, it helps contribute a certain level of realism to what is, in essence, a completely unrealistic film.
     Performance-wise, Uma Thurman carries herself well in the role as the Bride, a figure that is at once a personification and parody of every avenging angel heroine in screen history. Lucy Liu's role as O-Ren Ishii is the perfect synthesis of every bad girl (and some say, Dragon Lady) parts she's taken in the years leading up to Kill Bill. She pulls off her role with deliciously evil aplomb. Both actresses (as well as Vivica A. Fox) take the "girl power" phenomenon most famously depicted in the Charlie's Angels films to its absurd zenith with surprisingly compelling results. Whereas those movies were little more than girly fluff masquerading as female empowerment, the chicks of Kill Bill really do kick ass and mean it.
     To my complete surprise, "Kung Fu" veteran David Carradine actually manages to be menacing in his role as Bill, though that fact may have more to do with creative camerawork than it does stellar acting (only Volume 2 will tell for sure). The rest of the acting in the film ranges from the believably naturalistic (Sonny Chiba) to the precariously awkward (Vivica A. Fox handles the fighting aspect well, but doesn't quite nail her dialogue in her brief, but memorable sequence with Thurman). And I would be remiss if I didn't single out Chiaki Kuriyama's scene-stealing turn as GoGo Yubari, perhaps the most memorable second banana on the side of evil since Darth Maul. In a stylized universe where people are not only allowed to carry samurai swords on planes, but there's an actual holster for the katana designed into the armrest, the winning performances of the actors help hold together Tarantino's postmodernist approach to the B-grade "revenge" picture.
     And when the performances fail to bridge the ironic gap, the music picks up the slack. Fans of Tarantino's work know that his choice of music is essential to the overall tone of his films, and Kill Bill: Volume 1 is no exception. Tarantino makes several eccentric musical choices for the soundtrack that bring an entirely different feel to the fight sequences. Whereas another American director might insert the latest hip-hop track to back up the fighting, Tarantino instead goes for less obvious choices like Santa Esmeralda's version of "Don't Let Me Be Understood", which tweak the familiar just enough to make it feel almost brand new. The eclectic mix of American (Nancy Sinatra's "Bang Bang") and Japanese (Meijo Kaji's "The Flower of Carnage") tracks somehow translate into a kind of Asian-infused, rock n' roll equivalent of a rousing John Williams' fanfare.
     Tarantino's script is a snappy piece of work, but thankfully it bears little of the "I'm so cool, and you're not" vibe that some people felt typified Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs. Though the film is more about images and moments, Lucy Liu does manage to spout off a hilarious, profanity-laced piece of dialogue just after liquidating a dissenting Yakuza colleague (played by Audition's Jun Kunimura). Her tone grows from absurdly calm and analytical to comically volatile and countrified in mere moments. Liu's unexpected remark involving "sons-of-bitches" certainly had me laughing.
     When it comes to the martial arts, fight fans looking for painstakingly realistic action sequences will probably go home disappointed. Though some will criticize the director for his "Hollywood" take on Hong Kong action, the truth of the matter is that Tarantino actually seems to employ in Kill Bill the very same philosophy that Tsui Hark did when he worked with action director Yuen Woo-Ping on Once Upon a Time in China. Instead of a pedantic attentiveness to "real kung fu," Tarantino goes for what looks good stylistically. And thankfully, the film doesn't make the mistake that many American films have when trying to ape the Hong Kong style of action. Instead of wire fu "tag, you're it" contests where nothing really seems to happen, the hits and parries of Kill Bill have a definite heft and impact, not to mention brutal consequences. The initial fight sequence between Uma Thurman and Vivica Fox successfully combines the speed of HK-style choreography with a palpable sense of realism—in short, they look like they're trying to kill each other. While the following fight sequences don't sustain that same level of believability, the astronomically high level of gore that follows seems to suggest that that was the plan all along.
     Which brings me to my next point: they simply don't make movies like this anymore. With Hollywood's current predilection for greenlighting sanitized PG-13 action films in order to lure in the younger demographic, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is a welcome anomaly in the machine-like Hollywood system. It's a film that unabashedly revels in its glorification of violence in a way that's no longer fashionable in our politically correct society. Yes, many of you out there might be shaking your heads or wagging your fingers at such a statement, but I'm sticking to it. Nobody goes to action movies to contemplate the horrors of violence or the tragic consequences of man's inhumanity towards man, they go for the adrenaline rush.
    Some are quick to dismiss Tarantino as hack due to his imitation of films that he admires, but it is both the referential and reverential nature of Kill Bill: Volume 1 that accounts for some of its charm. The pop culture references range for the obvious (The Bride's Bruce Lee-inspired Game of Death tracksuit) to the obscure (most won't recognize the "Green Hornet" theme song) to the downright strange (Emily Dickinson's "I Heard A Fly Buzz" anyone?). In fact, the total number of references made in this film would probably be quite a bit longer than a debate about what's inside the famous Pulp Fiction briefcase. In terms of reverence, Tarantino's respect for Asian film—be it in the form of Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu or the general style that he is imitating—is obvious. In many ways, Volume 1—as crazy and as postmodern as it is—feels like his most personal film, in the sense that it's apparent in every frame that the man truly does love the various genres he's paying tribute to.
     Just to switch gears for a moment, I'd like to discuss the idea of two volumes as opposed to one film. To be honest, I initially perceived the decision to split Kill Bill into two movies as yet another cynical marketing ploy designed to line Miramax's pockets with more money. And though it may very well achieve that nefarious goal, after seeing the film for myself, I understand why cutting Kill Bill into two volumes was a necessary evil. Kill Bill: Volume 1 needs to end where it does. The thirty some odd minutes spent with the Bride as she carves up the House of the Blue Leaves is an exhilarating experience, but it's one that leaves you wanting a breather once it's over. Though entertaining, Kill Bill is not a rich, sprawling Lord of the Rings-style epic that deserves three hours of your time and attention. At best, it's a straight-up B-grade plot revenge flick, and those usually get the job done in ninety minutes or less.
     In a sense, Kill Bill: Volume 1 is only one half of what is essentially a swansong for the types of movies that Tarantino pays homage to. Spaghetti Westerns, black and white jidei-geki films, old-fashioned kung fu flicks, and the rest of those grindhouse favorites have all faded from the contemporary cinematic landscape. In no way whatsoever is Kill Bill: Volume 1 the greatest movie ever made. It certainly won't change your life in any substantial way, and some of you out there will just plain hate it. But if you just happen to be tapped into the same movie universes that Tarantino frequents, then Volume 1 makes for one hell of a ride. And that's only the half of it.

—Sanjuro 10/20/03

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