Kill Bill Vol. 1
As I write, Kill Bill Vol.1, Quentin Tarantino's much-publicized return to filmmaking after a five-year sabbatical, is the number one box office film in America. Moreover, most people who have ventured to see it know what to expect, and, from what I gather, come away happy and satiated, from a two-hour non-ending swords-and-knives bloodletting and splattering. I have a student in a university class who's proudly watched it five times in five days.
"But what's the point?" I ask a Kill Bill female fan at a party. "The action's the point," she answers. She also adores the films which Kill Bill most resembles, the 1990s Hong Kong flicks (A Better Tomorrow, A Bullet in the Head, etc.) made by Tarantino hero, John Woo: dumb, minimal stories with loads and loads of shooting, stabbings, and expired bodies everywhere. For every person who is mortified, morally outraged, by the excesses of violence in Woo and Tarantino, another person (and not just psychos) gets off on it. Tarantino has never been apologetic about the brutality of his cinema. Just the opposite. "I love violence in movies," he said in a 1992 interview, "and if you don't, it's like you don't like dancing, or slapstick, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be shown." What he means: violence is a convention of cinema, and it can be done badly or brilliantly, and that's what counts.
I have a third opinion on Tarantino violence. I understand that it's mostly stylized stuff, and I don't take moral offense to it; and, except for the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs, I'm rarely horrified, no matter how much spillage. But scene upon scene of carnage (and Kill Bill has raised the ante on murderous scenes from both Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction) leaves me numb and bored, no matter how dazzling the choreography. With Kill Bill, I ask, "Where's the world view? Where are living, breathing characters? What is this all about?"
Tarantino scrambles the narrative quite arbitrarily, hopping about in time, but the story unscrambled is a teensy one. Four years ago, a small wedding in El Paso, Texas, was disrupted by the multicultural Deadly Viper Assassination Squad led by the mysterious, nefarious Bill (David Carradine). The assassins assassinate, as they will, slaying the nine persons in the wedding party, including the already pregnant bride. But The Bride (Tarantino keeps her nameless) somehow survives. After a spell recuperating in a hospital, in which she fends off mangy rapists and a potential liquidator (Daryl Hannah), she sets off around the world for revenge. Her trail takes her to Pasadena, California, then to Okinanawa, then to Tokyo, seeking those who so messed up her wedding day.
The Bride is inhabited adequately by Uma Thurman, who had been earlier in Pulp Fiction and who Tarantino regards (so he's said) as his muse, his cool, svelte Marlene Dietrich, but with a thousand karate kicks and sword thrusts in her repertoire. Yet here's the rub: Tarantino gives us, by choice, nothing, nothing, about The Bride, not an iota of backstory, so she has no more reality than an attractive image that pops up on the Net, or a hyper-person in a mordant video game. Who was she married to, for instance? Who is/was the dead groom? How does she finance her globe-hopping revenge journey? Does she have parents? Friends? A home? A day job?
I might care more about her plight if I knew such things. Or what effect the revenge-seeking has on The Bride's psyche. A comparison with a non-Asian film which also deeply influenced Tarantino is instructive: Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black (1968), based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, in which, during a wedding ceremony, the groom is struck dead by a bullet, and the bride (Jeanne Moreau) then devotes her life to tracking down, one by one, a party of men, one of whom had fired the fatal shot. In Kill Bill, The Bride chases down the killers, smugly guilty every one, without her psyche being affected. But The Bride Wore Black is a tale of moral ambiguity, a classic tainted avenger tale in which we, the audience, watch sadly as the bride sacrifices all humanity turning into a homicide machine; and it's even more awful because some of her victims are nice people, who were there at the groom's murder but did not pull the trigger. A gloomy, scary, metaphysical movie. Whereas, Kill Bill, so close in story to Truffaut, is all surface. Action only.
So what about the action, choreographed by Yuen Wo-ping (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix)? This is the plain where Tarantino wants Kill Bill to be judged. There's a wry, nifty sequence near the opening, when The Bride knocks on a door in a Pasadena, California, middle-class black neighborhood, and the next thing you know, she and the pretty African-American housewife (Viveca A. Fox) are trying to knife each other in the kitchen and living room, battling in front of the TV set and picture window, through which we see a school bus letting children out at the end of school. And, moving ahead in the movie one-hour-and-a-half, Kill Bill finds its adventurous self in a brilliantly cut (by editor Sally Menke) sequence in a lavish Tokyo restaurant, in which The Bride prances about and hides different places, in wait of the yakuza gangleader (Lucy Liu), who was among the heinous attackers back in El Paso.
As in many Hong Kong programmers, lots of the fights in Kill Bill are girl-girl, which is, I suppose, both progressive and exploitative. And in line with a key element of Hong Kong action cinema, there's butchery ad infinitum but very little sexual play. Or sexiness. The normally sensual Thurman is, by intention, a frigid presence. The only lustful element in the two-hour movie is Japan's Chiaki Kuriyami as a mini-skirted teen bodyguard.
Can Tarantino still make movies? Assuredly, and Kill Bill is a beautiful film to look at, thanks to the ever-virtuosic cinematography of Robert Richardson, often Oliver Stone's Director of Photography. As always, Tarantino provides a wonderful mix of songs for his postmodernist soundtrack, though he relies perhaps too much on familiar patches from Ennio Morricone's tracks for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Finally, it's nice to see Tarantino find room in his cast for 1970s actors he adores (Carradine, Michael Parks), and, as a master sword maker, for Hong Kong "B" movie legend Sonny Chiba.
(WBUR website November 2003)