A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Kill Bill: Volume One

May 22, 2011

Kill Bill: Volume I

We keep saying, as we’re watching various films in our collection, “We should watch Kill Bill soon.” On Friday, for example, when we reviewed Sonny Chiba’s Dragon Princess, we commented on how the plot of a woman seeking revenge was so compelling even if the execution in that particular case was muddied by a poor translation and dub for American audiences. When we were watching Five Superfighters we were also reminded of this movie, because that sort of kung-fu staple is what inspired this movie.

Quentin Tarantino is completely straight forward in talking about this movie as homage to the samurai, kung-fu and spaghetti western movie he enjoyed growing up. In the making featurette that is on the DVD he says that in his mind Kill Bill is to the martial arts films of the seventies what Indiana Jones is to the adventure serials of the forties. In many ways I can see that, but it’s not a completely perfect analogy. Kill Bill doesn’t concern itself so much with having a continuous narrative. Instead it takes the form of isolated chapters, each taking cues from a particular genre of film. They are held together by a flimsy revenge plot and by some fantastic characters and actors, but they do not really make a complete whole. Indeed so disparate are the styles and looks of the different segments of the movie that even though events are shown out of sequence (in a very Pulp Fiction style) it doesn’t really impact the story telling.

We start out with “The Bride” (our anonymous heroine played fantastically by Uma Thurman) beaten and bloody on the floor of the chapel where she was to have been wed. Her vengeful ex Bill, whose face we never see in this movie is the head of an elite squad of killers, and together they all slaughter the wedding party and leave the Bride for dead. But she doesn’t die of course.

The movie jumps way forward now, and we see the Bride reuniting with one of her tormentors, who now lives in an unassuming suburban house with her husband and four year old daughter. She used to be Vernita Green but now she’s just Mrs. Bell. Until the Bride shows up and abruptly tries to kill her. It’s a knock down dirty vicious knife fight. This is the most brutally realistic part of the movie and the most hard-hitting. Perhaps that is why this is how Quentin chooses to start things out.

The next portion of the movie involves the four years the Bride spent comatose after her shooting. An evil one-eyed Daryl Hannah comes to her in her hospital room, but Bill calls her off before she can ignobly kill the Bride in her sleep. Eventually, of course, the Bride wakes up to discover that her comatose body has been pimped out by a slimy nurse in the hospital for the sexual gratification of awful perverts. Naturally she kills the client who has come to rape her, and kills the nurse Buck (who according to the television edit likes to party, but likes to do something more crude in the theatrical cut.) Yeah, that sets the mood for the movie right there. Awful people who deserve to die being killed.

As the Bride recovers in Buck’s truck (the Pussy Wagon) from four years of catatonia which has left her weak and almost paralyzed, we learn about the first person on her death list – O-Ren Ishii. This segment of the movie is an awesome and bloody anime short which details the young life of O-Ren as she is raised on a Japanese army base to her Chinese father and American mother. An evil mob boss kills her parents while she is hiding under the bed, and eventually an eleven year old O-Ren kills the mobster in revenge, thus beginning her career as an elite killer. In the time since O-Ren participated in the slaughter at the Bride’s wedding she has risen to the top of the Japanese underworld to be the head of all organised crime in Japan.

The next segment of the film is by far my favorite part of the whole movie. The Bride travels to Okinawa where she seeks out the retired sword maker Hattori Hanzo. Sonny Chiba portrays Hattori Hanzo, a character he has played for decades and whom Quentin Tarantino loved in his youth. This is a simple, comedic, spiritual interlude in a bloody and overwhelming movie and as such it’s an island of calm. The Bride needs the ultimate sword to exact her vengeance and apparently Hattori was once a mentor to the mysterious and nefarious Bill, so he agrees to come out of retirement and do that which he had sworn an oath never to do again: make a thing which kills people.

After this the movie returns to pure fantasy violence. The entire remaining third of the film is one long extended action scene as the Bride confronts O-Ren Ishii in a Japanese night club called the House of the Blue Leaves. She takes out the “Crazy Eighty-Eight” (O-Ren’s gang) and their masked commander as well as O-Ren’s sadistic schoolgirl bodyguard and finally faces O-Ren herself in a climactic swordfight.

This movie is all about capturing a series of visual moments. There are a few quintessentially Quentin moments, such as the “walking down the hall” scene at the House of the Blue Leaves. There are some amazing and complex camera shots, such as the lengthy steadycam shot that follows the Bride through the House of Blue Leaves, sweeping along beside her, up over walls, back through the crowd, over the balcony, picking up O-Ren’s multi lingual secretary Sofie as she walks down the stairs and completely unawares into the restroom where the Bride is waiting. Most of the time, however, the movie concentrates on evoking a particular cinematic mode. Each chapter has a distinctive style and soundtrack. Each part is a homage to an entire genre of film. As such this is actually a whole series of short films all starring the same indomitable character and all centered on a theme of vengeance.

They’re all great films though. Brilliant and well made and most of all just plain cool and fun to watch. The action is extreme, the blood is plentiful and the soundtrack is the pinnacle of awesome. Tarantino has done exactly what he set out to do – he’s distilled kung fu, spaghetti westerns, blacksploitation films and samurai movies into a single super action-fest and it is good. He pays homage and gets some of the great names to participate. Fight choreography by Yuen Wu-Ping. Sonny Chiba. This was the movie that convinced me that I completely loved Lucy Liu, who is completely awesome and kickass as O-Ren. My only regret is that I never saw this movie in the theater and had to enjoy it on the small screen. It’s a grant big action movie that deserves better.

May 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Five Superfighters

May 12, 2011

The Five Superfighters

After watching several of the grand epic films of Yimou Zhang it is almost a relief to watch a simple, low budget, brainless kung-fu movie. It would be difficult to make a simpler movie than this one, at least plot-wise. It would also be difficult to fit any more kung-fu into a ninety minute film than is crammed into this one – the movie is seventy to eighty percent fighting scene with a couple seconds of establishing shots and a couple lines of dialog to explain why the next fight is going to happen.

My one complaint would be that I can’t figure out who the five titular super fighters are. Pretty much every single character in this movie is a kung-fu master of some sort, so it’s a lot more than five. I’m guessing the five refers to the three apprentices in the story, their master, and the wandering dickweed who starts the whole movie going by beating the crap out of all four of them.

Things get underway when a man in black drifts into a peaceful town and starts taunting and then beating up kung-fu fighters. He starts out by defeating an entire dojo of students and eventually their master. This is just to establish his M.O. As he leaves the dojo he comes across three young students and their master, and decides to teach them a lesson as well. He beats each of the students individually, then all three together, then their master as well.

That very evening, without rousing their master and his wounded pride from a troubled sleep, the three students decide to go out into the world to find other kung-fu masters so they can develop their skills and return on their master’s birthday in six months to defeat the man in black. (Of course they have one last quick friendly fight between themselves first to decide who gets to go south.)

Each of them finds an unlikely master to train with. One comes across a young widow who makes a living selling home-made bean paste and who he discovers while she is fending off a trio of ruffians. Another meets a drunken cripple who turns out to have uncanny skills. The third enters into servitude with a simple fisherman who has unearthly abilities with a bamboo rod.

They each fight their potential master/mistress to gain the right to learn. Then there’s some more fighting which is part of their training. And more fighting to establish at the end of the six months that they’re learned enough to go back out into the world. In the mean time their old master has a re-match with the man in black and becomes a depressed drunk since he’s humiliated a second time and his young apprentices have all left him. (He demonstrates the depths to which he has sunk by fighting his kindly neighbour who brings him food to eat.)

It’s just a movie packed with fight scenes. Which is actually pretty cool. I didn’t have to use my brain at all tonight. I could just sit back and take in the pretty pictures. The fights are full of cool moves and fun humor. Everything is very much tongue in cheek. At the start of the movie I thought that perhaps I had seen it before, but now I’m less sure. I think it’s more that this movie is so steeped in the tropes and cliches of the genre that were well established before this was made. It has hints of Drunken Master. It has familiar kung-fu settings and stereotypes. It just feels comfortable and familiar.

I also really enjoyed the eclectic soundtrack. It’s a mix of all kinds of different styles and each fight has its own theme. It uses jazzy seventies guitars and electric video-game bleepings such as would have been popular in the eighties when this movie was made. And oh, does the version we watched tonight feel gloriously mired in the eighties. To start with it is your usual cheesy US dub. It’s also clearly encoded from a VHS master (there are VHS artifacts like tracking errors at the top of the frame and occasional lines through the center of the picture.) It’s also pan & scan – mostly. The opening credits bizarrely change aspect ratio – anamorphic for any title that would otherwise have gone off the sides of the TV but cropped for shots that have no titles over them. (The credits are over the initial fight scene of the man in black coming to town and kicking some unworthy asses.) Taken all together I was transported back to my high-school days of renting Jackie Chan movies from Mike’s Video or watching kung-fu films on channel 38. It was a fun and nostalgic feeling.

This isn’t a big movie. It isn’t a great movie. It’s one of hundreds of low budget films ground out by the kung-fu powerhouses of the sixties, seventies and eighties. It doen’t have anything original or new to say. It’s just a bung of fun fights strung together, and that is just fine with me. Not every movie has to be great – some can just be fun.

May 12, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Volcano High

January 11, 2011

Volcano High

We needed an antidote to the overblown pretension of the Matrix sequels, and both Amanda and I thought that this movie would be just the thing. The Matrix movies share some of the same visuals with this Korean effects-laden martial arts movie, but Volcano High is much more light hearted in nature.

This movie is all about a troubled teen named Kim Kyung-soo who has been kicked out of every high school he’s ever attended. As the movie starts he is coming to a school of last resort – Volcano High. Here he must keep his head down and find a way to fit in with the rambunctious student body that pretty much run the school. There’s the kendo team (entirely made up of badass girls) with their captain “Icy Jade” Yoo Chae-yi. There’s the weight-lifting team headed by “Dark Ox” Jang Ryang. There’s a rugby team and I’m pretty sure I saw students with field hockey sticks as well. All of these rival gangs are held in check by the most powerful member of the student body, the wise and aloof “Elegant Crane in a Pine Forest” Song Hak-rim and the kindly old principal of the school who has in his possession a legendary Secret Manuscript which brings great power to anybody who possesses it.

Things start to go wrong when Jang Ryang enacts a scheme to poison the principal and frame Song Hak-rim for it so that he can take over the school. If he can prove himself to be the most powerful student he hopes that his partner in crime – the vice principal – will give him the Secret Manuscript. So Jang beats down all the heads of all the other clubs and declares his love for Yoo Chae-yi, and there is only one person who can possibly stand in his way. Kim Kyung-soo has enormous hidden power, but he’s desperate to remain in the background.

We soon realize that Kim is not a bad guy. Maybe a little accident prone. He has been expelled from nine schools before Volcano High though because he has trouble containing his power. When it flares up people get hurt. So although he’d like to win the favor of Yoo Chae-yi and stop the violence that has overtaken the school he does not dare let himself go.

Then things get really bad. The vice principal, frustrated by the chaos overtaking the student body and his inability to contain it, brings in five unstoppable new teachers. Very soon these five teachers have taken complete control of the school using their dark martial arts mastery. There are also hints that the leader of the five teachers, Mr. Ma, has some history with Kyung-soo.

The entire movie is played for laughs. Everybody mugs delightfully for the camera and there are plenty of lighthearted bits mixed in with all the wire-work and CGI. There’s a decidedly anime influence throughout as well, from the extreme hair styles to the camera angles and editing techniques. It’s just a treat to watch.

My one complaint would be that the pacing and the way it is put together make it hard for a big dumb American like me to keep up sometimes. The subtitles hint at clever word-play and such that go completely over the head of anybody watching the film who doesn’t know Korean. Which I clearly do not. I feel like there’s a lot of subtlety that I’m missing, which is kind of sad.

Then again, subtlety is not really what this movie is about. It’s about pure unadulterated cool. From the effortless relaxes saunter of ice-cold Yoo Chae-yi to the wintery glare of the sinister Mr. Ma this movie is packed with awesome. How can it be goofy and awesome at the same time? Well, that’s part of its charm and part of what makes it such a treasure.

January 11, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment