Kill Bill:  So Far From So Close

Not Close Enough

Corey Yuen Kwai’s HK contemporary action film “So Close” (2002) represents a point of reference for any extended discussion of “Kill Bill.”  This title anticipates many of the same narrative conventions, yet remains faithful to those elements of Asian action genres that ground combat and vengeance imperatives in a rich personal context.  Like “Kill Bill,” one of the principal plot axes of “So Close” involves a lethal contest between several strong female protagonists.  Other comparable elements involve the casual dispatch of hordes of dark-suited male assistants, flamboyantly exaggerated wire- and CGI-assisted martial arts, and a vengeance-driven katana-wielding finale.  However, “So Close” also includes scenes of relatively intense and intimate physical combat that engage the viewer with themes of love, rivalry, loss and passion within the narrative of a women’s relationship film.  Newsweek’s film critic David Ansen commented on the longer action takes of “So Close,” whereas Tarantino observed that he had sought to make Thurman’s “The Bride” “scary.”  It is precisely this contrast in how action scenes are integrated with the narrative that may underscore Ansen’s additional points about lack of emotional subtext in “Kill Bill.”

So Close - Hsu Chi and Karen Mok
To be “scary” a protagonist must possess either convincing martial skill or convincingly cruel conviction.  Ironically, Chiaki Kuriyama’s “Go-go Yubari” delivers the most chilling performance of “Kill Bill” yet is permitted relatively limited time to develop her character.  Instead she appears to be treated as an icon of Shojodo – the way of the schoolgirl – in a reprise of her appearance in Kinji Fukasaku’s “Battle Royale” (2000).  Having initially characterized “The Bride” as scary, Tarantino argues that the audience ends up liking and admiring her since she is unstoppable.  But this appears to represent a real departure from the spirit of Japanese action film.  Japanese culture, in particular, does not favor individualistically perfect “nails that stick up,” prompting the talented to behave with public modesty.  Parenthetically, many older HK films appeared to deliberately challenge this.  Bruce Lee in particular pioneered a flagrantly individualistic approach to the traditional honor and vengeance related material when confronting Japanese characters – in part to highlight the injustice of prejudice.

Chiaki Kuriyama in Battle Royale

This points up the need for clarity in determining the significance of an unstoppable protagonist.  Lee was arguably advancing both a cultural and personal agenda in his film parts.  If “Kill Bill” invites identification of “The Bride” with Bruce Lee, the real message falls substantially short of expectation.  Constructive editing and special effects can allow this equation to be drawn for those unfamiliar with the long takes possible with martial artists.  But this seems ultimately less a homage than an anemic imitation.  If there is a contemporary cultural implication it could connote the superiority of Western (American, Caucasian) individualism.  After all, “The Bride” is evidently able to inspire and master the ultimate katana and use it to bloodily defeat legions of Japanese swordsmen after recovering from a coma – seemingly with ease.  Worse, her character is permitted no solidarity with other women as she kills a culturally diverse group of female opponents.  Contrast this with the unexpected bond forged in shared adversity between “Sue” (Vicky Zhao Wei) and “Hong” (Karen Mok Man-Wai) in “So Close.”  Neither is infallible or unstoppable.  It is precisely in their respective rejection of these inherently individualistic patriarchal myths that their characters find common ground – and a subversive romantic subtext.  Unlike traditional samurai or wuxia films that deliver relatively traditional messages with their legitimate martial skills, Asian female action films often invite inherently political readings.

So Close
Moreover, it is not the mere coldness of Thurman’s character that is at issue.  The Korean actor Jung-ah Yum has delivered perhaps one of the coldest screen personas in contemporary Asian action cinema in her portrayal of “Kim Mi Yun,” a detective hunting a serial killer of women in Jon-hyuk Lee’s “H” (2002).  What makes her performance compelling is the subtly conveyed impression of controlled rage – a glimpsed collision between inner emotion and outer discipline.  It is this tension that allows Detective Kim to smoke a cigarette before executing her suspect – emphasizing her last moments of contemplation, not his.  Such elements are missing from “Kill Bill,” a film that has been described as technically impressive but lacking emotion.

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All written material copyrights by T. P. (2003)