Kill Bill: Volume 1 - Another view or swimming against the tide
Some noders have complained I am not giving Kill Bill enough credit for its plot originality. However I do feel that although the events of the films are different, the sentiments are the same.
Kill Bill: Volume 1 is partly based on a Japanese film called Lady Snowblood, produced by Toho Productions, directed by Fujita Toshiya and starring Kaji Meiko as Lady Snowblood. I realized this as soon as I watched Kill Bill because I could see the deficiencies in it. I wanted to like this film but I just couldn't. Perhaps it's because I have seen so many Japanese classics that I have high standards. But personally I don't think it should be rated highly by someone with average (or even low) standards.
I even watched it a second time in June 2004, thinking that I had been too harsh on the it the first time around. But all the old complaints came up again - I think I even liked it a bit less than before.
Lady Snowblood is about a young woman who is raised to avenge the murders of her elder brother and father, in the Meiji Era of Japan's history, her mother having died in prison, arrested while attempting to kill the villains. She becomes an accomplished swordswoman, her beauty and fine kimono tricking ordinary people into thinking her harmless. Like in Kill Bill, she has several enemies to go after.
The thing that bugged me here about Kill Bill was the way that Quentin Tarantino had virtually copied the plot. Yes, he did modify the plot a bit, but the original idea was not his own. I can't remember him giving any credit to Toho Productions or praising Kaji Meiko for her performance. Has modern film-making merely degenerated to regurgitating someone else's hard work? He also managed to make me think of The Karate Kid too often.
Lady Snowblood was filmed in 1973, so it's hardly surprising that the action is nothing like modern expectations. The blood is too watery and when someone's throat is cut, you inevitably think of a burst water pipe. But it is still excellent. Kaji Meiko was clearly taught how to hold a sword properly - it's completely motionless in her hands, as if it were an extension of her body. Apart from her gravity-defying jumps, she fights on equal terms with her opponents and there are no ridiculous martial arts. Everything seems perfectly plausible. She is simply a killing machine, better trained and more dedicated than her opponents.
Unfortunately I felt that Mr Tarantino had seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon one too many times. Kill Bill tries to be both plausible and implausible at the same time. The start seems like previous Tarantino films but it was spoilt when Uma Thurman inexplicably managed to fly into the air, as well as the time she somehow managed to leap into the ceiling. But wire-fu could not make up for the fact that I thought she was going to cut herself with her own sword at any moment. When she stopped moving, the sword quivered in her hands. Not because she had been hit by anything - it was because even after God-knows how long in training, she still couldn't hold it properly. Kaji Meiko might have only used a kodachi but it was rock-solid in her grasp.
In the first fight, she made a pathetic attempt to jump over a sofa. She had to bunny-hop off the seat - I nearly laughed out loud. Other ridiculous scenes included the fact that she could carry a katana on a plane. Yes, haha, very funny, we know those cute, little Jappos like samurai swords and allow people to carry them on board aircraft. I'm sorry but that's just stupid. It's also a tad racist to sterotype like that.
(By the way, if anyone is interested concerning O-Ren Ishii's Yakuza, in recent months the Japanese government has ordered a crackdown on these mobsters. Though we are normally bombarded with films showing the Police as tolerating their activities, Junichiro Koizumi decided that enough is enough and a tougher line must be taken from now on. The "Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves" would have been broken up by a SWAT team before you could say Seven Samurai.)
I didn't have an opinion on Uma Thurman's acting ability before watching Kill Bill. I do now. It was poor, end of story. From what I have been told, the reason she got the part was that she went to the producer, Lawrence Bender, and begged him to help her. Her career prior to Kill Bill Vol. 1 was going horribly wrong, but as she was a personal friend he put her to the top of the list.
Uma Thurman can't do revenge, that's for sure. You could see the hate in Kaji Meiko's eyes, the pain that she had endured every moment of her life. There was an excellent scene when she thought that one of her targets had died of natural causes. She was very still at first but then her eyes started to get wider and she began to shake gently with rage - then she cut some flowers left in half and broke her sword, cutting into the tombstone. Her face was for the most part an emotionless mask - her eyes told us everything we needed to know about her feelings. The only think I could see in Ms Thurman's eyes was the look of someone who was trying desperately to pretend she knew what she was doing but couldn't lie to herself. It's interesting, as I often think the Japanese know how to demonstrate emotions like anger and hate the best in theatre and film.
As a side note, I thought that Lucy Liu gave a very good performance. She had a lot of venom in her, much like Kaji Meiko. It's a shame she didn't have a better script and an opportunity to tell us something more about her character. However she used what relatively little she had to work with very well. It is a shame that the film centres around "The Bride" so much because I really wanted to see and hear more of Lucy. The film felt horribly imbalanced with Uma Thurman as the leading lady and Lucy simply the "bad guy". In some respects O-Ren Ishii is even more like Lady Snowblood than the Bride, her life being shaped by the death of her parents and her desire for revenge.
Finally I thought it was really daft Lucy had to say her "I collect your f**king head" speech in English. Why is a half Chinese-Japanese woman brought up in Japan, who was orphaned at a young age, unable to speak Japanese fluently? What's even more ridiculous is the fact that she can speak English perfectly.
The Camera work
The camera work in Kill Bill wasn't bad in most places but there were some awful missed opportunities. During the final battle, the camera zooms out. Why? We want to watch the fight. Lady Snowblood was always up close and personal. That's why I could see the steely gaze of Kaji Meiko. With Kill Bill, I was simply left with the impression that the camera was zoomed out so that we couldn't see that the stunt doubles were doing all of the fighting (perhaps I'm wrong here). When we did get to see the action close up it was great to see Lucy Liu's concentration. Uma Thurman, however, looked like she was scared - obviously she forgot this was a film and not real life.
Both films had good sets. This was one reason I wanted to like Kill Bill. It was pretty. But so was Lady Snowblood and they used REAL sets. Can you imagine how difficult it was to recreate a 19th century Japanese town, with original clothing, even original banknotes? Even in the 1970s traditional Japan had all but disappeared from the map.
One of the few good parts about Kill Bill. When O-Ren Ishii dies, we hear the main theme from Lady Snowblood (sung by the lovely Kaji Meiko herself), further highlighting the links between the two films. I enjoyed most of Kill Bill's music and it was well orientated with the action. Of course, the original soundtrack for Lady Snowblood is great, portraying the mood of each scence admirably.
All in all, I thought that Tarantino had simply made a poor rip-off of an excellent film, leaching off an excellent genre. A lot of people were tricked into praising the film by the visual effects and the choreography. Some of his past films were truly great but I felt that this time, all that he had done was throw a huge amount of money at the film, spending lots of money on special effects and likeable actresses. If Fujita Toshiya had been given his budget, he either would have given 95% of it back and said he didn't need it, or he would have made Tarantino look like a 10 year-old boy with a wet-dream about samurai and martial arts. I hope that he tries harder next time, or doesn't try at all.
I have heard people say that Quentin Tarantino has privately praised films like Lady Snowblood, saying that it did inspire him. Yes, very nice, now where does that get mentioned in the film? Nowhere? Yep, NOWHERE! No mention at the start, not even a "thanks to" with the credits. Making a few references in interviews does not really counterbalance the impression people would have received from watching the film.