Kill Bill–Vol.1: Tarantino’s Homage to (or Reimagining of) Various Action Genres

Quentin Tarantino, one of the hottest–and coolest–young filmmakers working in Hollywood today describes his new, eagerly-awaited picture, Kill Bill–Vol. 1 as “a duck press” of all the grindhouse cinema he’s absorbed over a lifetime of watching movies.

Kill Bill is both an homage and a reimagining of the genre films Tarantino has admired ever since he was a boy: Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns (which made Clint Eastwood an international star in the 1960s), Chinese martial arts films, Japanese Samurai movies, as well as Japanese animation (known as anime).

Initially, Kill Bill, which was in production for over eight months, was going to be released as one picture.  But when Miramax’s honcho, Harvey Weinstein, watched Tarantino’s three hour plus cut, he decided that instead of cutting the film’s running time to fit the norm, the movie should be released in two parts.  Kill Bill-Vol. 2. is scheduled to open theatrically in the U.S. in February 2004.

Kill Bill follows the story of a lone survivor, known only as The Bride, whose entire wedding party (along with her unborn child) are ambushed at the altar and left for dead.  After four years in coma, the Bride embarks on a quest for justice against those responsible: former comrades from a life she has left behind.

Unfolding as a book, Kill Bill is conceived in chapters, each boasting the characteristic look and pulse of a specific movie genre.  As in each and every Tarantino film, the chapters are interwoven with references to music, literature, and above all pop culture.

Thus a rubout sequence from a Yakusza film is presented in Japanese anime imagery with a score that borrows heavily from Italian Westerns.  What comes through is not only Tarantino’s passion and vast knowledge of world cinema but also a sense of thematic and emotional binding energy that gives all of these forms enduring power.  Tarantino evokes not just the gaudy, engaging surface of genre cinema but also its rebellious, counter-cultural spirit.

As a result, the archetypal characters of Vol 1. have a surprising undercurrent of emotional conviction that pulls the audience toward the ultimate confrontations of Vol. 2: Bill himself (who give the picture its title).  It emerges that Bill (played by the iconic 1970s star David Carradine, in a role originally planned for Warren Beatty) was also The Bride’s lover and the father of her child).  It was the Bride’s decision to leave “the life” and assume a new identity, when she learned she was pregnant, that sparked Bill’s lethal fury.  The thought of the lives lost, that empowers the Bride’s vendetta, brings all the more impact to the story’s resolution in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

Tarantino says that the different film styles he employs for the various sequences of Kill Bill were a natural choice for a filmmaker like himself, a self-styled “movie geek” who for decades has been savoring the pop cinema products of several continents.  As he explains: “When I come to do a scene that’s like something you might see in an Italian Gialo (slasher movie) or in a kung fu film, I know how they would have done it over there, so I’m going to shoot it that way.  I don’t really think of myself as only an American director.  I want people in just about any country to see elements in my movies that they can understand and enjoy.”

Strange as it may sound, the origins of Kill Bill are geographical.  Tarantino spent his youth in South Bay, the region south of Los Angeles that includes Manhattan Beach.  In fact, his previous movie, Jackie Brown (1997) that starred Pam Grier, queen of 1970s blaxploitation pictures, was set in that vicinity and was meant as a showcase for the area’s “many charms.”  The South Bay was one of the areas that still had second-run “grind houses,” showing blaxploitation and kung fu films, long after the market had dried up in other sections of the city.

“I was a little kid when the kung fu exploitation hit in the early 1970s,” Tarantino recalls of his childhood–and schooling–in Old School Martial Arts Cinema.  “For about two years they were showing all these kung fu films.  And even after the kung fu craze died out everywhere else, it was kept alive in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the South bay in ghetto houses.  For me it’s one of the greatest cinema genres that ever existed.”

On television, Tarantino watched The Green Hornet, which featured a young Bruce Lee as the title hero’s masked sidekick.  He later followed the exploits of David Carradine’s Eurasian kung fu master, caine, on the ABC-TV series Kung Fu.  A few years later, he expanded his interest in Asian actioners, such as the imported series, Shadow Warriors.  When the new wave of Hong Kong action cinema arrived in the mid-1980s, Tarantino, by then a video store clerk in Manhattan Beach, was one of its most vociferous boosters.

Summing up his artistic baggage, Tarantino notes: “There are two different worlds that my movies take place in.  One is the ‘Quentin Universe’ of Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown–it’s heightened but more or less realistic.  The other is the Movie World.  When characters in the ‘Quentin Universe’ go to the movies, the stuff they see takes place in the ‘Movie World.’  They act as a window into that world.  Kill Bill is the first film I’ve made that takes place in the ‘Movie World.’  This is me imagining what would happen if that world really existed, and I could take a film crew in there and make a Quentin Tarantino movie about those characters.”

In other words, in Tarantino’s eccentric and bizarre world, there is no clear distinction between life imitates art and art imitates life.