Thursday, February 24, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin

Tarantino is obviously EXACTLY like John Milton, because both men quote the works of others, arrange those quotes in relation to each other and to the new work they are apart of, and they do so in order to achieve mastery over their influences.


[The opening credits to the movie. Gorden Liu does martial arts movies by himself. You can see it here: ]


Gorden Liu as Johnny Mo in Kill Bill. Thurman kills him on the balcony railing at the House of the Blue Leaves.


[Gordon Liu as Pai Mei, training Thurman to punch through a board from 3 inches away.]

You can see Liu in both roles in the trailer:

Gordon Liu is the main character in 1978 Shaw Brothers production The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, which is the story of a guy who becomes a monk to learn Kung-Fu, so he can go back and help his people who are being oppressed.

The Shaw Brothers made a ton of the big 70s Grindhouse Kung Fu films that Tarantino loves -- which is why he puts the Shaw Brothers logo at the start of Kill Bill, even though Kill Bill is not really Shaw Brothers production.

36th Chamber, also called Master Killer, is also a favorite of Tarantino's Kill Bill collaborator The Wu Tang Clan's RZA, who wrote original music for Kill Bill. It is because of this movie that the Wu Tang Clan's first album is called Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers), and one of their members is called Master Killer. The RZA spent a lot of time watching this movie, and movies like it in New York when he was a kid, and it was a big influence on him -- so much so that he does a full 2 hour audio commentary track on the DVD of the movie. And from the commentary it is clear he has seen this movie enough to memorize it.

Gordon Liu plays actually two roles in Kill Bill, one in each volume: he plays Johnny Mo (the leader of the Crazy 88s) and Pai Mei.

I am not 100% sure but I think the music that plays in the first Kill Bill clip above is by the RZA -- so the RZA is supplying fight music -- and death scene music -- for his hero.

On the Johnny Mo front it is interesting that Gordon Liu is Chinese, leading what is presumably a team of Japanese swordsmen. It would just be an uninteresting accident of the movie except that the movie itself goes out of its way to point out that a half Japanese half-Chinese American woman played by Lucy Liu is leaning the whole team. We will discuss this more as we go but the mixing of race here mirrors the mixing of genres, many of which are clearly identified with specific countries (Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai movies, Kung Fu movies, Giallo horror movies and so on). Race and Tarantino is a big subject -- from using the n-word in Pulp Fiction to casting a white woman as the incarnation of Bruce Lee -- that it looks like we will be talking about in the future.

On the Pai Mei front there is an even bigger Gordon Liu connection. 36th Chamber of the Shaolin is famous particularly for the lengthy training sequence -- it is basically the middle part of the movie, maybe a third or even half of the running time. All of act 2 is the training. Liu has to master 35 different chambers, each of which teach him something about kung fu even if he does not realize how. Like the training sequence in Karate Kid, he hits bells and carries water and so on. At the end of his training he is offered the position of head of whatever chamber he choses (except the 35th, which is old men doing some kind of very abstract philosophy religious thing). Liu rejects this offer and wants to invent a 36th -- a chamber where the training will be open to the public, not just monks, so that they can defend themselves in the real world instead of living in a monastery. For this he is banished -- though the RZA's take on it is that is a silent approval: the monks send him out into the world so that he can do what he wanted in the first place. If you know this, his role as Pai Mei takes on an added significance -- it is like a glimpse into the end of the life of Liu's character from 36th Chamber. As in 36th Chamber we see the master in charge of one skill -- here the punching through a board -- which must be mastered before you can move on, and we see the same kind of techniques: basically torturing people till they get it right.


hcduvall said...

It has to be said that as an work of mashing/appropiations/art, Kill Bill is a far more eloquent expression of where Tarantino is on race than probably the answers you'd get asking Tarantino about race. Which is to say, Kill Bill settled a lot of my doubts, though I'm still not sure I'd want to him talk about it. I'm not sure he'd be as articulate in words as his films are.

Geoff Klock said...

On this blog, or in person, you will speak to me more about this.

p0w said...

The music in the Kill Bill trailer is "Battle without Honor or Humanity" by Tomoyasu Hotei. It's track 9 on the soundtrack.

Geoff Klock said...

p0w -- sorry about that. I had different clips in the first draft of this post and had to suddenly change them when copyright became and issue. What I mean to say was I am not sure if the music playing in Kill Bill for the banister fight is by the RZA or not, but I think it is.

Battle Without Honor or Humanity is awesome though right?

p0w said...

It really is. Unfortunately, Colin Cowherd of ESPN uses it daily now and it's lost some of its oompf. I thought it was by the RZA as well and looked it up on iTunes to see. 36th Chamber is one of the best MA movies I've ever seen and so few people even know it exists.