A spoiler-free writeup
Those of you lucky enough to keep your lives can go. But leave your severed body parts-- they belong to me.
Film is not of this earth. As a medium, cinema may present a picture of this world, but at its heart all artistic creations are in part fantasy, a slice of life as seen by their creator. They are the product of our imagination, thus at least in part imaginary, no matter how real the images that appear upon the screen.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the films of Quentin Tarantino, and no film is clearer on that point than Kill Bill. Like David Lynch Tarantino's films inhabit a world that could be ours, It is a world of organized crime and petty selfishness, a world where evil wears a pretty, even beautiful face. The scary part of that it could be real. Sort of.
The story of Kill Bill is a straightforward: revenge. It is a common story, dating from long before the cinima. Uma Thurman plays his protagonist, a very pregnant woman left for dead on her wedding day by a gangster named Bill and a gang of hired killers. A gang she used to belong to back when she was known as the Black Mamba. She awakes after spending four years in a coma, no longer pregnant, and with only one goal on her mind, revenge on Bill and the murderers who massacred everyone, even the organist. This is the story, or more correctly the first half of the story of her pursuit of their ruin.
From this realistic premise comes a totally unrealistic movie, one owing as much to Wile E. Coyote as it does to Alfred Hitchcock. Kill Bill is a fantasy without the elves. For Kill Bill is a kung-fu movie, in fact the attempt at the ultimate ninja flick. Such movies always live in the realm of fantasy. The characters are archetypes, not flesh and blood characters but scantly characterized representations of supernatural forces, actors in a divine comedy. Nor can they be. In the average Jackie Chan movie, the hero takes on waves of skilled assassins. But as a fencing instructor once told me: "Two mediocre swordsmen beat a great one every single time". Yet in this form of art, the hero readily defeats impossible odds. The aerobatic fighting scenes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are simply an extension of this cosmic fantasy into the vertical. Kill Bill is such a fantasy.
Uma Thurman's the Bride is one such archetype, the force for righteous vengeance. For honor and the retrieval of it is one constant of the genre. The villains are cold assassins, sociopaths to their last breath. Lucy Liu's O Ren Ishii represents the yakuza gangster. Her story is partly told via anime, which is appropriate and she too is a force of vengeance. But like those who might seek to wield Tolkien's One Ring, O Ren threw down the Dark Lord only to become him. And Bill is the greatest archetype of all. Played by David Carradine, he is never seen, only his fingers, his samurai sword and his murderous actions, including the shooting of the pregnant Bride carrying his child. Through his voice and ringed fingers, Bill is both comic and elevated, clearly the ultimate test.
Tarantino builds his world from our own vocabulary, one established from the popular film media. The movie is revealing of Tarantino's own video collection: Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Kurasawa and Jay Ward with a dash of Brian Depalma The movie is a homage to genre film: spaghetti westerns ninja films, and gangster movies, a language we are intimately familiar with. Only realism is twisted in Tarantinos universe. Severed limbs spout blood like a firehose, and violence is at times graphic and other times off stage. Tarantino understands that is necessary, that oversaturated but unrealistic violence may become comic, but too much graphic violence creates revulsion. By making the violence extreme yet unrealistic he detaches the audience, and makes it possible to laugh in the middle of murder. It is Itchy and Scratchy without the animation.
For Kill Bill is very much a comedy. While it may say much about us that we can laugh at such violence, the jokes are constant, and employ the same sort of ironic juxtapositions that so enliven his earlier Pulp Fiction. Japanese movies are backed with sixties pop, and the subtitles often come in American slang. Samurai swords sing when drawn, bowling pins fall, tittering Japanese schoolgirls turn into stone killers, psychotic assassins become suburban moms. But many of the details come from simply brilliant cinematography. From the perfect animee, vibrant primary colors and exquisite camera work, Kill Bill is a visual feast. The sound editing is particularly brilliant, with bowling pins and shimmering sounds providing a fantastic intimacy to this fantasy.. It all plays homage to the films Tarantino so clearly loves. Inside jokes are everywhere, and I know I missed most of them. Kill Bill is a triumph of form over content.
For content is not what you watch Kill Bill for. Tarantino is not Norman Mailer, nor does he seek to be. The story offers no real lessons, or in-depth portraits. The characters motivations are established, they meet, fight and one walks away. Of course this is just part one, the original cut ran over four hours and when the studios objected, Tarantino cut the film in two.
In some ways, I would enjoy seeing part II. Tarantino is nothing if not clever, and if it has the wit, humor and ballet of part I it will prove entertaining. Yet I wonder if this film needs finishing. As a homage, it stands alone, and I can see nothing in part II beyond more of the same. Not even catharsis through violence. Kill Bill is a brilliant homage, perhaps the ultimate. But that's all it is, and all it tries to be. It is a film of modest ambition, immodestly done.