The Slashing Grandeur of Kill Bill: Vol. 1

By Fernando F. Croce

First, a confession: Quentin Tarantino's films are very close to my heart. Ever since Pulp Fiction gave me my first great shock of cinema nearly a decade ago, I have been fascinated by his movies, few as they have been. So obviously, I had skyscraper expectations for Kill Bill: Vol. 1, his first effort since the lamentably underappreciated Jackie Brown. Even as a fan, however, I could not help but feel a certain ambivalence toward the entire project -- a self-described "grindhouse epic" based on the director's well-known fondness for chop-socky, badly-dubbed, kung-fu sleazefests. Sounded like masturbatory folly to me. Had Tarantino, in those six years of inactivity, lost it?

O me of little faith. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 had me from its first minutes, as Nancy Sinatra crooned "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" over the silhouetted profile of Uma Thurman's comatose warrior, the song played for its wrenching sense of loss rather than for easy, smart-ass irony. The irony is left to the fact that the picture, designed just as a down-and-dirty ride, blows all of the season's more prestigious releases out of the water. It is, simply put, the richest, most continuously stimulating film I have seen all year.

Thurman is "The Bride," a former member of a gang of professional killers known as Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, lorded over by the eponymous Bill (David Carradine, unseen but for his insinuating twang). Left for dead following a pulverizing wedding day massacre conducted by her old colleagues, she awakens from a coma four years later, thirsting for vengeance. After dispensing of the scummy male nurse who's been selling her unconscious body to slobbering truckers, the Bride embarks on a ruthless journey against those who destroyed her dreams of a normal life -- which in Vol. 1 include Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), now a Pasadena soccer mom, and O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), who's slashed and burned her way to the top of the Tokyo yakuza underworld.

A lot has been made of Miramax's decision to sever the movie into two installments (with Volume 2 due out next February), which, whether an artistic decision or (more likely) a studio's attempt at cashing in on the Matrix/Lord of the Rings franchises, renders Kill Bill ultimately impossible to analyze as a coherent whole right now. One might say it is half a masterpiece, though that's half more than nearly all movies out right now.

That said, the first installment invites consistent amazement. The story, told in chapters deliberately shuffled out of order, is, as the director described it, "thirty years of grindhouse moviegoing squeezed in a Duck press." Tarantino's films, though perfectly accessible and enjoyable in and of themselves, extract their extraordinary richness from their relationship with the rest of cinema -- the heist-gone-wrong genre in Reservoir Dogs, the film noir and nouvelle vague thriller in Pulp Fiction, the soulful blaxploitation in Jackie Brown. In Kill Bill, Tarantino riffs on the kind of lowdown martial-arts yarn where fists rip through torsos and words do not quite match the characters' lips, as well as overheated spaghetti Westerns where showdowns work like arias in an opera. The attention spend on getting their feel just right, down to a boldly cheesy, psychedelic "feature presentation" opening and every manic zoom into characters' eyes, can only be called fetishistic.

And yet, for all the attention lavished on details, it would be myopic to write the film off (as many critics have done) as slick, empty pastiche. The same people who showered superlatives on the parasitic Xeroxing of Far from Heaven (Douglas Sirk weepies) or Down with Love (Doris Day-Rock Hudson marshmallows) for their self-satisfied, repellently knowing borrowings also miss Vol. 1's sophisticated cultural examination of pop-saturated images. Tarantino's attitude toward genre cinema, even one as artistically dubious as the kung-fu film, is more complex and suggestive than is usually acknowledged even in lengthy studies of his work. He never feels superior toward his raw material (the way Fred Zinnemann did of the Western in High Noon) or contemptuous of it (like Joseph Losey of the spy thriller in Modesty Blaise). Yet it isn't mindlessly celebratory, either. His love for cinema is tempered by instinctively questioning impulses -- as a result, Tarantino's work explodes the medium by carrying it to its limits and simultaneously surveilling what it says about the cultures that have fermented it.

Allowing for the crudeness that comes with such a sweeping statement, directors could be separated into two categories -- directors who have things to say and use the cinema as the way to say them (Ken Loach, John Sayles, Charles Burnett), and directors who see the cinema itself as their subject, their delight and excitement for it as an end in itself (Michael Powell, Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese). Tarantino, as Kill Bill: Vol. 1 offers ample evidence, belongs to the second group with a vengeance. In the sense that the notion of film itself is the main creative impulse behind his work, he's a post-modernist, the movies' richness deriving in great measure from the viewer's awareness of the characters as iconic emblems, as well as their own awareness of their status as "characters." Seen from that angle, his images can work on two, three, four simultaneous levels.

Just an example: the Bride arrives by plane in Tokyo for her rendezvous with O-Ren. A simple sequence in description yet saturated with complex implications in execution. The airplane and, in fact, Tokyo itself, are presented as undisguised artifice, Tohoscope models right out of a Mothra potboiler, while the soundtrack blasts the theme from the Green Hornet TV series -- every bit an incorporation of Asian myths into American culture as a merging of Rimsky-Korsavov's "Flight of the Bumblebee" and pop jazz for its theme song. The amalgam of disparate cultural implications (also related closely to O-Ren's own mixed heritage) is as complex and virtuosic as Dusan Makavejev's cross-cutting of socialism and sexual politics in WR -- Mysteries of the Organism (1971).

The implications, as always, extend to the casting. When the Bride seeks a samurai sword from an old blade master trying to hide his past behind the counter of a sushi restaurant, the aged sansei is none other than Sonny Chiba, the star of countless low-rent kung-fu thrillers, made as dignified and gruffly funny as Toshiro Mifune by the gaze of an adoring fanboy director. When Darryl Hannah pops up as deadly hit woman Elle Driver, smashingly decked in a nurse outfit with matching white eye-patch, she is meant to evoke not just the same Darryl Hannah from Blade Runner (1982), but also the bloodthirsty one-eyed harpies of such sexploitation opuses as Thriller (1974) and Switchblade Sisters (1975).

What's amazing about the film is that, while operating on such a culturally sophisticated level, it is remarkably free of the deadening smirk of irony, in direct contrast to the widespread image of Tarantino as a dispenser of halls of mirrors made of cinematic quotation marks. During the Bride's bone-crushing bout with Vernita in her living room, viewers are invited to enjoy the furious orchestration of mayhem as exciting... until a school bus suddenly pulls into the deep-focus background of the fight sequence, and Vernita's young daughter steps into the scene. More than an elegant visual pun, it is a typically Tarantinoesque inversion of film convention -- the unexpected infusion of the moral into the purely visceral. (The notion of her killing of Vernita, who's achieved what the Bride originally planned -- settling down with a family -- adds yet another layer to the sequence, one predictably missed by critics complaining of the picture's supposedly mindless bloodlust.)

The common criticism of the thinness of the movie's characters could be attributed, of course, to the fact that only half of it has been seen, though it is another misconception of the methods used by Tarantino. Like in the films of Josef von Sternberg or Howard Hawks, his characters keep their feelings in check, bottled up inside as part of a necessity in their milieu, as essential to their survival. In a sense, their secrecy, far from reducing them to comic- book level, is structured toward an emotional climax when their masks are dropped and the beings behind the attitudinizing genre armors are revealed (witness the breakdowns of Mr. White and Jackie Brown, and the Bride's anguished howl after learning that she's lost her unborn baby). The character of the Bride is revealed not merely through her actions (or through Thurman's remarkably phisical and emotional incarnation) but also reflected in the other characters. Her hardened future is embodied by Elle just as her past can be seen in the demonic schoolgirl Go Go Yubari (the unforgettable Chiaki Kuriyama) and, to an extend, in Vernita's now-orphaned daughter.

Yet her mirror reflection is O-Ren, whose own bloody past, hypnotically evoked by a 20-minute animé sequence, renders her every bit the fierce woman warrior that the Bride is. (The picture could just as easily have followed her, and Liu's silky elegance is a formidable match to Thurman's feline grace.) The duel between the two, following a kaleidoscopically blood-soaked battle that starts out like Kurosawa's Yojimbo and ends more like Welles' Chimes at Midnight, takes place in a flauntingly artificial formal Japanese garden as flakes of snow gently fall around the two circling adversaries and a song simultaneously suggestive of flamenco and electric disco blasts on the soundtrack. By this time, Kill Bill: Vol.1 has strayed so far from the safety net of most American movies out now that it could be seen as a litmus test for moviegoers. It is cinema pushed to its borders -- those who reject it altogether, it can be safely assumed, have no place in the movie house.

Originally published in two parts in The Spartan Daily on October 15 and 17, 2003.

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