I'm behind the times. Sad but true. Hell, the last issue of Daredevil I read was fifty; I'll get around to reading this next arc sometime next year, I'm sure. I've already blocked out the time. It's right after the period I have reserved to finally listen to Speakerboxxx/Love Below, and right before the time I allotted to finally watching the Sopranos.
Anyway. Since everyone else is talking up Kill Bill Volume 2 (the diminutive of which is KBV2, I've given to understand), it's about time I got around to talking about KBV1. Short version: I didn't much like it. The long version is below.
I went in very much wanting to love--not just like--KBV1. I mean, I love kung fu movies. I sat through week after week of DOC Films' various Hong Kong film nights. Let's put it this way: I was upset at the way Disney cut Iron Monkey. And I've enjoyed every Tarantino film I've ever seen. Like I said, I wanted to, expected to, love this movie.
And I think I know why. But first, a brief taxonomy of the two kinds of enjoyable kung fu/exploitation films. With any luck, this will be as coherent as J.W. Hastings exposition on caper films
; though, with my track record, perhaps I'd bet short on this one.
Enjoyable kung fu movies come in two types. The first is enjoyable because it is schlock, it knows it is schlock, and its only goal is to entertain, either via action or goofy humour. Think, say, Fong Sai-Yuk, or the oeuvre of Jackie Chan. Good clean fun.
The second type is played straight. Which is not to say realistic; but it takes its own absurdities very seriously. It doesn't wink at the audience. And because it takes itself seriously, it can reach for something beyond simply entertaining an audience. Its lunacy becomes contagious; it can aspire to narrative power. Think about (not a kung fu movie, but the point remains) John Woo's Hard Boiled. It makes, frankly, no sense at all, either in its narrative or its physics. It's honor/betrayal paradigm shouldn't really work, given what its yoked to; and explained to people who haven't seen the film, it often doesn't. But as a movie...it works. Oh man, how it works. It works because Woo never doubts that it should work, or lets on that he knows it shouldn't. Woo never admits that his films are cartoons, and his belief that they aren't transmutes them from cartoons into something more.
KBV1 fails because it can't decide which kind of film it wants to be. Tarantino clearly wants the audience to feel it; for the plight of his characters to resonate. But he can't play his story straight. He winks at the audience continually, starting with the invocation of Star Trek that starts the movie. He tells us, over and over, that this is all in good fun; that it's a cartoon. He invites us to appreciate it as spectacle instead of asking us to believe in it as a story. Which is fine; I like spectacle. Just don't then ask me to take seriously the morality of murdering Vivica Fox in front of her child. Don't ask me to feel anything for the characters other than a rooting interest of the "Go Good Guys!" variety. Tarantino can't have it both ways. He can't ask us to take his movie seriously yet at the same time treat it as a big pop cultural joke. You can't have a breakdance fight scene and still ask me to care. You can't present characters as grotesques and ask me to find depth in them.
Why this happened, I have no idea. Neither Pulp Fiction nor Reservoir Dogs shared this flaw. Both were played essentially straight; what winking there was was deeply camouflaged. Perhaps now that he has something to lose--a reputation to maintain--he lacks the confidence to tell a genre story straight. He's afraid to simply ask us to accept ninjas and swordplay and Technicolor assassination squads; he knows that these are not the kinds of things that serious filmmakers are supposed to be about. The wink is his way of playing it safe; it's all kitsch, see? Good fun. "I don't, you know, really care about this stuf, members of the Academy"...But this is sheer speculation on my part. Unnecassary speculation at that; why he crippled his movie isn't really all that relevant. The fact is, he did. It limps around, provides some entertaining moments. But it never made me care, and took efforts to keep me from even trying.
It should be noted, again, I haven't seen part two. Seen together, maybe the film feels different. Check back with eight months from now, after I've seen KBV2, and I'll let you know.
The Fine Print: As used above, the word cartoon is intended to be pejorative. And yes, I know that there are lots of cartoons that have emotional depth and heft. I'm not talking about those. Also, this is just my take. It's by no means intended as a definitive piece of film criticism, or as establishing a definitive taxonomy of kung fu movies. This post is not to be taken internally, and is void where prohibited
Rose alludes to some of these same points
, and, as per usual, does so in much elegant fashion than do I. See also here