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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2003
A cut above
Should movie reviewers read other reviews of movies they're going to write about? Usually a bad idea, I think. But here I am, writing about Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill Vol. 1" after being bombarded with its U.S. reviews, including the good, the bad and the clueless by critics whose total acquaintance with Asian films is a Bruce Lee movie or two. Even ones who could run the semi-obligatory Shaw Brothers references complained about its over-the-top violence, flat characters and lack of witty, typically Tarantino dialogue.
So I went to a press screening expecting a relentless barrage of flashing swords and flying limbs filmed by a 40-year-old otaku with too many fond memories of old chop-socky movies. What I got was a martial-arts stew, made with a spacy passion and obsessive craft. Not quite a comic spoof, not quite a serious homage -- but rather a mix uniquely Tarantino.
"Kill Bill" is a movie geek's fantasy come to life, made with 50 million or so of Harvey Weinstein's dollars. Tarantino, however, is an intelligent geek, who not only loves old Kinji Fukasaku movies -- he dedicated "Kill Bill" to this master of the yakuza genre -- but knows that merely reshooting his greatest bits with Hollywood actors is boring and unnecessary. He uses signature Fukasaku touches, including the way his gangsters writhe in their bloody death throes, but combined with wire-assisted leaps straight from old Shaw Brothers sword fests.
The total package deserves all the usual Tarantino adjectives -- cool, funny, smart, cinematically literate -- but it is also giddily surrealistic in a way new to the Tarantino oeuvre. This Japan exists only in his head -- but that head happens to be a dreamscape in which even bizarre cultural meldings have an imaginative consistency. It's Tarantino World, and despite all his imitators there's nowhere else on earth like it.
But can you get the joke if you've never seen one of Fukasaku's movies? The many quotes from other films, both on the screen and soundtrack, are obviously there to supply giggles to Tarantino's fellow otaku (as well as to Tarantino himself). At the same time, the comedy is generic enough -- cartoonishly so -- that fans with little specific knowledge of the genres being parodied can understand the humor, say, of maniacal masked yakuza hordes descending on Uma Thurman. It's "The Simpsons" approach to comedy: plenty of clever in-jokes for the pop culture cognoscenti, plenty of broad laughs for everyone else.
But a lot of people out there are not getting the joke, in- or otherwise. In his blog for New Republic magazine, editor Greg Easterbrook dismissed Taratino's films as "pure junk" and charged Michael Eisner at Disney and Harvey Weinstein at Miramax with "promot ing for profit the adulation of violence" by backing "Kill Bill" and its ilk. That Easterbrook got himself in hot water for describing Eisner and Weinstein as "Jewish executives" who "worship money above all else" is the subject for another piece. What is relevant, though, is his disgust with Tarantino's bloodletting. And he is not the only one.
"Kill Bill" does indulge in extreme violence -- severed heads being just a beginning -- and some of it may make you gag on your popcorn. "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" this is not.
Also, save for a flirty scene with Sonny Chiba as swordmaker Hattori Hanzo, and a few similarly lighter moments, Uma Thurman is all business as The Bride, dicing scores of opponents in her search for revenge. This committed, self-immolating performance -- Thurman even submits to far-from-attractive close-ups of her toes -- gives the mangaesque storyline needed weight. We don't really know why The Bride's fellow assassins-for-hire did her dirty on her wedding day -- the answer will presumably come in "Kill Bill Vol. 2." We do know, from the way The Bride goes about her grisly work, that her rage for revenge is for real -- just as John Wayne's was in "The Searchers," a film that many of the same critics who savaged "Kill Bill" would put on their all-time top 10 list.
One difference is that John Ford was a naturalist working within the Hollywood system; Tarantino is an ironist referencing cinematic styles still little known in the West. Thurman and her fellow assassins may hardly crack a smile, but the bloodshed in "Kill Bill" goes so far over the top, even making an erotic visual pun on the arterial spurtings of a dying thug, that the only possible intent is humor. In addition to Fukasaku, whose slaughter of the innocents in "Battle Royale" was far rougher than anything in Tarantino, there is also Takashi Miike, whose black comic plunge into the abattoir in "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)" makes "Kill Bill" look like a kindergarten play.
If anything, Tarantino manga-tizes the violence to the point of absurdity -- but also probably to the limit of what the American audience can stand. And me? As someone who's seen more yakuza flicks than is good for his mental health, "Kill Bill" is mainly a romp. Does it have the impact of "Reservoir Dogs" or "Pulp Fiction"? No. But it is a welcome dash of crazy exotic color amid the gray sea of Hollywood conformity. Meiko Kaji singing enka in the multiplexes of America -- a happy thought, that.