I am not a follower of the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. Beyond some brief clips of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, I haven’t seen any of his other films. From what I can gather, his work seems to illicit extreme responses: some very positive, some very negative, very little in the middle. Widely publicized as his fourth film, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is in fact his fifth (he seems to have disowned 1987’s My Best Friend’s Birthday) and, by all accounts, represents a marked change in style from his earlier efforts: maintaining visual and aural flamboyance but replacing a previous emphasis on dialogue with lots of action.
Uma Thurman plays a woman known only as the Bride (her name is bleeped on the occasions when it is mentioned). She used to be a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, but on the day of her wedding the other members turn up at the church, slaughter her husband-to-be and all the guests, put a bullet through her skull and leave her and her unborn child for dead. Four years later, she awakens from a coma and sets about getting her revenge: killing her would-be murderers one by one, working her way towards Bill (David Caradine), head of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. Split into two “volumes” shortly before it was due to be released, this particular instalment of Kill Bill covers her mission to slay only two targets: Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), now a suburban housewife, and O-Ren (Lucy Liu), now head of the Japanese mafia.
One of the best descriptions of Kill Bill I have seen comes from an internet forum, where a member compared it to having sex with a prostitute: fun while it lasts, yet ultimately superficial. The film is essentially an extremely visceral audio-visual treat, referencing everything from Hong Kong martial arts movies to Japanese anime to Westerns. The plot is pretty lightweight, relying on the over-the-top nature of its presentation to give it weight. In a sense, the enjoyment is derived not from finding out what will happen but how it will happen. We’re never in any doubt that the Bride will accomplish her goals, but seeing how she gets there is extremely enjoyable, thanks to the excellent cinematography, choreography and some ridiculously exaggerated gore.
The film also experiments a great deal with the order of the narrative and the way in which it is told. For instance, the rather anticlimactic confrontation with Vernita Green is in fact placed before either the fight with O-Ren or indeed the Bride’s escape from hospital after she awakens from her coma, despite the fact that, in chronological terms, it is actually the final event of the movie. Presumably, this unusual structure is the result of ordering the sequences in a way to make them more interesting. It works, whatever the motive. Furthermore, the back-story of O-Ren is told via animation, and is narrated by the Bride (while she is trying to regain control of her dead legs shortly after waking up, no less) – a highly effective deviation from the rest of the film.
But for all Kill Bill’s flashy photography and choreography, it would be nothing if not for Uma Thurman. She carries most of the movie single-handed, injecting charisma into her character and making you genuinely root for her. It’s not all just sword-waving and striking epic poses: there are some moments that genuinely tug at your heartstrings, such as the moment the Bride realizes that, while she has been comatose for four years, she has been repeatedly raped under the supervision of one of the hospital’s nurses. The film may be completely surreal, but it has heart too, and I think that for a lot of people this may have got lost amongst all the carnage. The supporting cast are very good too, but this is her movie, and none of the other players have the screen time or the presence that she has.
If Kill Bill has any real problems, it’s that it often doesn’t seem to be sure whether it wants to mock or to pay homage to the films it references. The tone is a bit inconsistent, to the extent that, when victims of the Bride are writhing on the floor, limbs missing and blood spraying everywhere like a hose, it’s difficult to know whether to be shocked or to laugh out loud. This film is definitely going to illicit very different responses from different people. There are also a number of moments that seem to be deliberately corny or badly done; for example, the Bride’s dialogue with Vernita Green near the start of the film sounds like the kind of thing you could expect to hear in a bad soap opera. I also absolutely loved one shot late in the movie that showed clearly visible strings holding up an aeroplane. Genius!
Overall, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is not a particularly clever film, but it is a well-made one, and the punch it packs in terms of style certainly makes up for the relative shortcoming of its plot. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Volume 2 and seeing how things turn out. The final outcome is pretty inevitable, I guess, but the ride, so far, has been well worth it.
Note regarding the Japanese cut: As almost everyone must know by now, the version of Kill Bill Vol. 1 released in Japan is slightly different from the one released in the West. Most famously, part of the fight in the House of Blue Leaves goes into black and white in Western prints (in order to circumvent the MPAA’s phobia of excessive amounts of red blood). While Tarantino has, on several occasions, claimed that the Japanese version, which features the House of Blue Leaves sequence in full colour as well as various other shots that were deleted or altered to avoid an NC-17 rating in the Western prints, is not a “director’s cut” but simply an alternative version, this would seem to contradict his repeated marketing of the film in Japan as “full-strength Kill Bill”. Here is a complete list of the differences between the Western and Japanese versions (stolen shamelessly from IMDB):
- The opening scene between The Bride and Vernita Green has two alternate angles shown when The Bride asks for a towel instead of keeping the overhead shot.
- In the anime sequence, one of Boss Matsumoto's men has his face smashed into a wall twice, rather then just once.
- In the anime sequence, when O-Ren Ishii kills Matsumoto and tells him to look at her face, she asks him to look at more facial features (nose, chin. etc.) to be recognized, and then before pulling the knife out, there is a close up shot of her moving the knife up his stomach and then finally pulling it out. There are a couple of close up shots of Matsumoto's face as he's dying as well that were eliminated from the US print and then a pan up shot of Matsumoto's blood covered and disemboweled body.
- The "House of Blue Leaves" fight is not only in full color, but features about 9 new shots missing from the US print which include:
- A close up of the first female Crazy 88 (Julie Manase) gargling blood after being pinned to a wodden pillar by a sword. This shot, while cut from the US version of Vol 1, showed up in the end credits of the US cut of Vol 2.
- A shot of The Bride stabbing two Crazy 88s at once using her own sword as well as another Crazy 88's sword.
- A ten foot high super backflip that The Bride executes before landing back down to pop out one of the Crazy 88's eyes. This shot appeared in the TV spot teaser, but disappeared soon after.
- The Bride jabbing a Crazy 88 in the throat with her "snake fist", and the partially armless Sofie Fatale giving a disgusted reaction.
- A shot of another female Crazy 88 attacking only to get slashed in the throat and spraying blood everywhere.
- The first appearance of the "Kid Crazy 88" (the one who gets spanked with the sword). In this shot, we now find out why he's missing a mask later on. As he's about to attack The Bride, she swipes his mask off. We see he's just a kid, and he gives the universal "don't hurt me" sign. The Bride has a look of shock on her face in realizing he's just a kid, so she grabs him, throws him across, knocking 3-4 Crazy 88 into a blood filled mini pool. This shot of the 3-4 falling, while cut from the US version of Vol 1, also showed up in the end credits of the US cut of Vol 2. Overall, this "mini scene" helps establish The Bride's look of surprise even more when she sees the young Crazy 88 the last time... and his follow up "don't hurt me" look even funnier.
- A shot of a Crazy 88 getting slashed across the chest and spraying blood all over a wall.
- When The Bride jumps onto the shoulders of one of the Crazy 88, after she slashes another one across the face, the Crazy 88 she's standing on tries to attack her from below. She parries the attack and cuts his hands off. The shot then cuts to the forward sommersault.
- Since the fight is already in color, the close up "eye shot" of The Bride blinking is cut. Instead, the first part of the close up before she blinks is shown, however, at the point when she normally blinks, there is a replacement medium shot of her standing slightly fatigued and holding her sword out.
- Finally, after the "House of Blue Leaves" fight, is the most infamous of the missing scenes and that is Sofie Fatale's extended "trunk interrogation" scene. After The Bride warns Sofie about cutting off something, instead of cutting back to Sofie in the hospital, The Bride is shown grabbing Sofie's arm and screams "GIVE ME YOUR OTHER ARM!". Sofie starts to panic, but then The Bride chops off her other arm, causing blood to splash onto the screen and Sofie begins screaming again.
Also, the Japanese cut replaces the “Old Klingon Proverb” at the beginning of the film with a dedication to filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku.
A thorough analysis of the differences, with screenshots, is provided at Schnittberichte (in German).
Kill Bill Vol. 1 is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Colour definition is excellent. The film is painted with an extremely bold palette, and all the strong reds, blues and whites shine through with no problems. Furthermore, the occasional uses of black and white photography look excellent, with rich, high contrast levels.
Unfortunately, the transfer has been very heavily noise reduced, filtered and edge enhanced. The film looks incredibly artificial and all but the most extreme close-ups lack definition of any kind. This really does a criminal disservice to Robert Richardson's excellent cinematography, and it is by far the worst thing about this release. From what I have seen of them, the US release is no better and the UK disc is only marginally less edge enhanced. I would like to think, when Volumes 1 and 2 are eventually re-released as a single film, that the film will be completely retransferred, because this is a terrible way to treat such a prestigious title.
We get three audio mixes: English in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, and a Japanese dub in Dolby Digital 5.1. As you can probably guess, I listened mainly to the DTS track.
This is really great mix. It’s loud, deep and innovative. The heavy breathing that accompanies the black screen at the beginning of the movie reverberates from all the speakers, and the subsequent gunshot as Bill shoots Uma in the head is suitably loud, startling, and backed up by copious subwoofer action. This quality of audio continues throughout the movie. Sword-swinging and limb-amputation never sounded so good! I also love the use of scratchy vinyl audio for the music: it gives it a nice, old-school touch. (In case you couldn’t guess, I’m one of those people who maintains that vinyl sounds superior to CDs.) The dialogue is at times a little difficult to make out, especially in the scene where Uma confronts Vernita Green, but this is down to the way the actors read their lines rather than any problem with the audio mix.
The Dolby Digital track is impressive too, but less enveloping (and less loud) than its DTS big brother. For instance, in the aforementioned heavy-breathing sequence, I got the impression that there was less separation in the rear speakers than on the DTS track. Still decent, though.
Subtitles are a major bone of contention. Kill Bill has smatterings of Japanese dialogue, which in the theatrical prints were subtitled in English. The UK and US DVDs have options for English subtitles throughout the film, or for the Japanese dialogue only. On the Japanese DVD, however, if you want English subtitles for the Japanese dialogue, you’ll have to have them for the English dialogue as well: i.e. throughout the entire film. (Or you could manually switch them on and off, I suppose.) Personally this does not bother me unduly, as I had no problem with watching the film once with subtitles on permanently, and then on subsequent viewings with subtitles turned off.
Japanese subtitles are also included. There is a third subtitle option on the menu, which translates on-screen English text into Japanese.
The opening menu sequence, featuring a great deal of footage from the film, is overly long but can thankfully be skipped by pressing the “Menu” button, which takes you straight to the film. Overall, the menu is less interesting than the one that graces the Western releases, but it is reasonably functional. Bear in mind, though, that it is in Japanese only, so you will need to go through a process of trial and error to work out what each option does.
I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the cover artwork. It’s stylish, yes, but it’s not particularly interesting. There are some very nice custom covers out there that are much more appealing.
Inside the case is what appears to be a rebate for Kill Bill Vol. 2, as well as a registration card and a catalogue of other titles available. There is no chapter insert.
The Western releases of Kill Bill Vol. 1 are pretty lightweight affairs in terms of bonus material: a making-of featurette, music video, and a number of trailers. While the Japanese release is hardly feature-packed, it does have a significantly better selection on offer.
Fight scene selection - Similar to the “Jump to a Death” feature New Line provides on its A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th releases, this feature lets you to go straight to one of the film’s seven fight scenes, as well as the tail-end of the anime sequence (the part showing the Bride being knocked around).
Making of anime sequence - This 22-minute documentary is in Japanese with no subtitles, but it is definitely worth watching to get a glimpse of some of the behind the scenes artwork, as well as to see an extremely animated (bad joke, I know) Quentin Tarantino announcing to the Japanese public that, “because they can handle it”, they get to see “full-strength Kill Bill”. Interviewees include executive animation producer Mitsuhisa Ishikawa, character designers Katsuhito Ishii and Shou Tajima, and art director Minoru Nishida.
On set footage - A nice little 10-minute roll of video footage showing various moments of prepping and shooting the various fights in the House of Blue Leaves.
Anime storyboard-to-film comparison - Running at 8 minutes, this feature plays the entire anime sequence in a small window, with the storyboard version running down the other side of the screen. Very enjoyable.
Cast and crew biographies - Biographies and selected filmographies of various cast and crew members, unsurprisingly in Japanese.
Various Interviews are included. These are accessed through the biography of the person in question. Interviewees include Quentin Tarantino, producer Lawrence Bender, and actors Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Sonny Chiba, Julie Dreyfus and Chiaki Kuriyama. Bear in mind that the last three all speak in Japanese with no English subtitles. The other interviews have optional Japanese subtitles.
Stills gallery - A collection of various on-set photographs, some of them obviously publicity material and others behind-the-scenes.
Concept art gallery - Various character design and background drawings from the anime sequence.
Three trailers are also included: the Bootleg trailer, Theatrical trailer and the Kill Bill Vol. 2 trailer, as well as 5 TV spots. All of these are US trailers.
Overall, Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a very nice package from an audio-visual standpoint, but it is somewhat let down by inadequate image quality and a relative lack of insightful bonus material. That said, it is more feature-packed than any other release, so overall, this Japanese version is definitely the best way to experience the film. Provided you don’t mind the fact that English subtitles must be displayed throughout the film (or toggled on and off manually) if you want translations for the Japanese dialogue, you really can’t go wrong with this release. Highly recommended.