Once Upon a Time in the East

Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill (or half of it, anyway)

Early in his career, Tarantino was accused of ripping off other filmmakers—filching the climax of Reservoir Dogs from Ringo Lam's far inferior City on Fire, for example. Whenever I have mentioned such charges to Hong Kong filmmakers, they've laughed: We steal things all the time. That's how we make movies. And this is true not only in Hong Kong. Part of the electric excitement of modern culture is its delirious capacity for cross-pollination. One can only marvel how Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest turned into Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo, which became A Fistful of Dollars by Leone, whose grandiose style was further hyperbolized by John Woo, who then inspired Robert Rodriguez to make Once Upon a Time in Mexico, which ups the ante on Woo-ish mayhem while nodding back at Leone.

Still, when I first heard that Tarantino was making Kill Bill, I wondered whether he might be too late. Back in the early '90s, he'd been ahead of the curve, giving Sam Jackson's character Sonny Chiba shtick in Pulp Fiction and urging John Travolta to make pictures with Woo. But the world has changed in the last decade, and while the '70s' raging bulls and easy riders were inspired by Europe's various new waves, many of today's filmmakers are clearly turned on by Asia. Audiences now know Jackie Chan and Jet Li. They're familiar with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which skillfully Westernized its script for international consumption, and The Matrix, which laced its head-trip sci-fi with kung-fu fighting. Even Sofia Coppola's acclaimed Lost in Translation borrows heavily from Wong Kar-wai, the reigning master of urban melancholy, whose first U.S. release, Chungking Express, was brought out by none other than Quentin Tarantino. Whether this increasing awareness of Asian cinema will help turn American audiences on to Kill Bill—or somehow make it feel stale—only the next few weeks will reveal.

If nothing else, Vol. 1 is undeniably a fan-boy's paradise, with cinematic references sprouting like so many mushrooms. In fact, the movie's huge press kit reads rather like one of those skeleton keys to Ulysses or Finnegans Wake that help explain Joyce's countless cultural allusions. Explaining Tarantino's every intention—he's a man who wants to be understood—it makes a nerdish point of telling us that the glass nightclub floor at the House of Blue Leaves comes from Seijun Suzuki's hallucinatory 1965 gangster pic Tokyo Drifter, and that the young Japanese actress who plays Go Go Yubari ventured a similar role in the late Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale. While I don't have the faintest idea whether Kill Bill will be a hit or a bomb, I do guarantee this: Original copies of this 69-page document will one day fetch a pretty penny on eBay.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; produced by Tarantino and Lawrence Bender; and stars Uma Thurman, Daryl Hannah and Lucy Liu. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village.

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