Films #105 & 106: Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

kill_bill2 KillBillVol2
Kill Bill: Vol 1
Released: 2003
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Language: English, Japanese, French
Length: 105 minutes
Kill Bill: Vol 2
Released: 2004
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Language: English, Chinese
Length: 136 minutes
Watched on: 29 December 2013

Excuse the odd layout – it was the best way I could think of to have the pictures align up correctly. It’s taken me a long time to get around to watching this two-part story by Quentin Tarantino. It was very popular when I was in high school, and yet for some reason I never watched it then. I remember some of my friends singing or whistling some of the famous tunes from it, which I then recognized when I watched the movie.

The movies are quite high-energy martial arts-themed. If I remember rightly, Tarantino considers them one movie that he had to break into two because the running time was almost four hours, but there is a tone shift at the start of Volume 2 which makes the two movies much more distinct than something that was split out of necessity. They are certainly enjoyable to watch, but there are numerous problems with them.

Kill Bill follows the path of Uma Thurman, known as The Bride in the first movie and given the name Beatrix in the second – a confusing turn of events since her name is jarringly bleeped out in the opening scene of the first movie. She has just woken up from a coma, realizes that she’s miscarried and resolves to kill Bill, the man who tried to kill her. The title isn’t particularly imaginative. She also has to track down the team of assassins that did most of Bill’s legwork.

In the first movie, she kills the first two of the four assassins: one is disposed of in the opening scene, following which she goes all the way to Okinawa to get a legendary swordsman to craft a katana for her, and then on to Tokyo to hunt down Lucy Liu, who plays a yakuza crimelord (the fact that she’s actually Chinese, jarring at first, is addressed quite satisfactorially in the movie). In this movie, Bill remains an unseen face, a mysterious man who we don’t really know anything about. There is a big fight scene near the end in a traditional Japanese restaurant, with frankly excellent setpieces.

In the second movie, she’s back to America, and we start to find out about the relationship between her and Bill. She fights against the last two assassins, and there’s what I think must be an iconic scene against a woman with an eyepatch – at least, I always thought Uma Thurman was the one with the eyepatch until I saw that scene playing on repeat to provide atmosphere in a bar somewhere. There’s also a flashback scene shoehorned in at an inappropriate moment describing Thurman’s training with a Chinese kung fu master. For some reason, my copy of the movie had no subtitles, so this just turned into the two of them barking nonsense at each other (Just in case, I found a subtitled copy on Youtube to compare… and as I expected, that’s exactly what it is anyway). It wasn’t especially clear how this scene fit into the greater picture.

As movies, the first one is far better than the second. The atmosphere is more sinister, and the movie builds to a proper climax and executes that climax as one would expect for a martial arts movie: that is, with a great big fight scene that goes on for about twenty minutes. The second introduces Bill’s face right at the start, instantly taking away any mystique that he’d had, and making the atmosphere less sinister. There is no climax to speak of: a previously hinted-at twist comes into play in the last half-hour of the film, and Bill and Uma Thurman mostly reconcile their differences by talking, with but a brief fight between them which was incredibly dissatisfactory.

The things I want to complain about are perhaps expected with anything that Tarantino does, but I would like to address them anyway. I found the depiction of Asian cultures very fetishistic and exploitative – I mean, yeah, Tarantino makes nothing but exploitation movies, but it came across really strongly in both movies – the martial arts master in the second was basically a racist stereotype of Chinese people in many senses of the word, and as for the Japanese… well it’s at least better than The Wolverine. On numerous occasions, Japanese was used as the language to deliver pithy bullshit dressed up as something profound, and this was the thing that annoyed me the most about it, because having lived in Japan, you come to realize that nobody ever talks about honour. The whole katana thing and the focus on swordfighting is unrealistic (real yakuzas just use guns!), but it’s an excuse to put martial arts in the film, so I will let it slide.

The other thing that really annoyed me about both movies, but especially the second, were the endless monologues. I’ve already alluded to it, but it got really unbearable by the end of the second movie. As I mentioned, what with all the B-movie splendour that the film relishes in, the plot is not complicated, and the dialogue should be secondary to the action, but I think Tarantino got carried away. I have literally no idea what they were saying half the time because I got so bored of it I stopped paying attention. I’m definitely of the opinion that if I’m getting bored of what characters are saying, or can’t tease apart the meaning of the monologues, there is two much dialogue, and it should be cut down. The film could easily have lost at least half of the words exchanged between Uma Thurman and Bill in the last thirty minutes, and would have been better off for it.

I think if I’m giving recommendations of Tarantino’s movies, Pulp Fiction was much better than Kill Bill. I think the main reason to watch Kill Bill is not as much for merit in the film itself as it is to understand all the other media that refer to it. Whether or not you like them, and I guess I liked the first movie but not the second, the movies have a distinct visual style, which reminded me of the 70s or 80s, with things like the occasional intertitles or garish special effects, and even since watching them I’ve already seen one not-so-subtle reference to them in How I Met Your Mother, of all things, and I suspect that I’ve seen quite a few more references to them in other media already without realizing it. In that case, I would recommend it, but I would simply caution against the self-indulgence and exploitation.

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