Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Mixed Colostomy Bag Wednesday 4: KILL BILL

Having been duly warned by Andi's post that "Kill Bill" contains some Japanese dialogue, I went to the DVD-room near my place and requested English subtitling so I wouldn't be left out of the action.

I agree with Andi that "Kill Bill" didn't feature enough swordplay. I also thought the fight choreography wasn't nearly as tight as it could have been. There are a couple reasons why:

1. Yuen Wo-ping is a kung-fu choreographer, as well as the king of wire-fu acrobatics. His fight scenes are easily recognizable. He prefers open stances and wide, circular movements, and while some of this may lend itself to Japanese-style fight sequences, Japanese fight choreography tends to favor more directness and angularity and less circularity. Also, the tempo of a samurai fight is usually lightning-quick. Nick Gillard understood this when he scripted that amazing around-the-chasm lightsaber sequence between Obi-wan Kenobi and Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace" (the best damn scene in that awful movie), because he correctly realized that the Jedi are the Star Wars analogue for the samurai (with the exception of Yoda, who's more in the mold of a Taoist forest sage). I didn't see that kind of furious tempo in "Kill Bill." None of the major fights (except the Uma/Vivica one at the beginning) felt all that tense. For comparison, watch the 30-second swordfight at the end of the very corny Rutger Hauer flick "Blind Fury." Hauer, playing a Western version of Zatoichi, takes on a Japanese swordsman, and that fight is fast. Yuen should have adopted a similar pace.

2. Part of the beauty of many samurai fight sequences derives from the presence of robes (and/or armor), which can lend an amazing dignity to the combat. Uma's pretty hot in her tight yellow jumpsuit-- a homage to Bruce Lee's yellow jumpsuit in "Game of Death," but she's leggy: those meat-stilts just don't project the necessary elegance. And although she's wearing Bruce Lee's jumpsuit, her moves make me think of Kareem Abdul-Jabar's beanpole-ish jeet kune do. Uma's legs are a distraction. Sorry, Quentin, but Asian aesthetics are often about understatement. Robes help with this. A robed Uma would be a much more graceful Uma. But it's a trade-off: a robed Uma would also look a lot less thrilling during the wire-fu moments. It was during those moments that the yellow jumpsuit made the most sense.

Tarantino's presentation of the Bride's fight against the Crazy 88s includes too many tropes from too many different cinematic and cultural influences; the result is a bit muddled. The basic question for me was: should a Chinese wire-fu choreographer be staging a samurai-style fight? This might have been a mistake.

[NB: Don't get me wrong: the choreography was still marvelous, but it could have been a lot better.]

The movie's predominant theme is revenge. The opening sequence informs us of the "old Klingon proverb" (nod to the over-the-top Ricardo Montalban in "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan," as well as Mario Puzo's The Godfather) that revenge is a dish best served cold. But the movie's not really about the coldness of revenge, although that's part of it. No: we get a much deeper truth about revenge in a speech near the end of the film by Sonny Chiba's character, Hattori Hanzo, the swordsmith who makes Uma's sublime sword. Hattori tells the Bride that revenge is like a forest: it's possible to lose your way in it.

The movie explores this lostness by tying all the main characters to children or to childhood. Tragic events set people on the path to revenge. The past affects the present. It's karma on steroids, bile begetting bile. The Bride, who's left for dead after being beaten and shot while pregnant, thinks her daughter is gone. O-ren Ishii's life as a Yakuza begins with a childhood incident: the death of her parents (done in great animé style) at the hands of a gangster. Her personal bodyguard is also a child, a mean-tempered schoolgirl. Vivica Fox's character, Vernita Green, leaves behind a four-year-old daughter who-- if the Hollywood scuttlebutt is true-- will figure in another round of "Kill Bill" movies: the daughter who grows up to pursue the Bride and avenge her mother's death. Even Hattori Hanzo walks in the dark forest of revenge: he's reneged on a vow he'd made, almost 30 years ago, never to make another instrument of killing. Who knows what consequences this will have for him? Who knows what it means to break with a long-ago promise?

[Quick aside: I admit to some satisfaction at seeing Sofie Fatale (gorgeous actress Julie Dreyfuss) get a nice comeuppance at the hands of Uma and her sword. Dreyfuss is a feast for the eyes, but her character was vile and deserved the on-site surgery she received.]

I was also intrigued by the large number of foot and ankle attacks in "Kill Bill," something of a rarity in fight choreography. Even in the animé sequence (in the "Origins of O-ren Ishii" chapter), people's feet are getting lopped off or blown off. I suppose it's the best way to dispatch your opponent if you're in a prone position: get him in a prone position, too. But damn, this happened a lot in "Kill Bill."

Many reviewers have beaten to death the fact that Tarantino's films are filled with cinematic and musical references. I don't want to go into that, except to note two scenes in "Kill Bill" that reminded me of other movies. First is the Bride's wheelchair-bound escape from the hospital, which brought to mind Steven Seagal's gurney-bound escape from his assailants in "Hard to Kill." Second is the fight scene with Lucy Liu, which ends in a wildly implausible manner reminiscent of the penultimate fight scene between Taye Diggs and Christian Bale in "Equilibrium" (another movie with some very nifty fight choreography, if you're a fight scene junkie like me).

Returning to the children-trope for a moment: it occurs to me that there's another director whose movies are big on kids: Steven Spielberg. Spielberg's movies, even the darker films like "Schindler's List," show great reverence for the child's perspective on things. Tarantino's "Kill Bill" is, in my opinion, thoroughly-- even gleefully-- anti-Spielbergian in tone and content. The poisoning of childhood is one of the thematic elements driving the movie's plot, and while I didn't find "Kill Bill" to be anywhere near as visceral an experience as "Reservoir Dogs," it confirms my belief that Tarantino's just mean sometimes.

In all, "Kill Bill" was thoroughly entertaining. Sonny Chiba stole the show, in my book. That whole sake-bar repartee with his recalcitrant assistant was hilarious, and Chiba, as an actual martial artist, has the proper gravitas for scenes like the one in which he gives his best sword to the Bride to right some wrongs (Bill is apparently a former student of his, you see). "Kill Bill" is bloody but fun, not nearly as mean as "Reservoir Dogs" nor as tension-laden as "Pulp Fiction," but it's a damn good ride, and above-average eye candy.

Before I forget: hats off to Daryl Hannah for, once again, coming off as a complete fucking loon, and I mean that as a compliment. She's the best blonde freak in the business. I honestly think she'd have done a better job than Glenn Close in the Jilted Woman role in "Fatal Attraction." I'm hoping her scenes as Elle Driver in "Kill Bill: Volume 2" will trump her yeoman's work in "Blade Runner," where she played the equally psycho Pris. KBV2 comes out in Seoul this coming Friday.

Guess what I'm doing this weekend.

[NB: For a super-fast fight scene that looks ridiculous but is a must-see for junkies, find Steven Seagal's "Under Siege" (the first one), and watch the brief-but-exhilarating knife fight between Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones. Holy shit.]


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