Written by Old Bluffer 5th Oct 2006
Pai Mei is introduced to the revenge killing saga that is Kill Bill, by none other than Bill himself.
This is done through means of a wonderfully evocative monologue by David Carradine, with pauses at appropriate moments to add atmosphere with his Chinese flute.
"Once upon a time in China, some believe, around the year one double-ought three, head priest of the White Lotus Clan, Pai Mei was walking down the road, contemplating whatever it is that a man of Pai Mei's infinite power contemplates - which is another way of saying "who knows" - when a Shaolin monk appeared, traveling in the opposite direction. As the monk and the priest crossed paths, Pai Mei, in a practically unfathomable display of generosity, gave the monk the slightest of nods. The nod was not returned. Now, was it the intention of the Shaolin monk to insult Pai Mei, or did he just fail to see the generous social gesture? The motives of the monk remain unknown. What is known are the consequences: The next morning Pai Mei appeared at the Shaolin Temple and demanded of the Temple's head abbot that he offer Pai Mei his neck to repay the insult. The Abbot at first tried to console Pai Mei, only to find Pai Mei was...inconsolable. So began the massacre of the Shaolin Temple and all sixty of the monks inside at the fists of the White Lotus..."
Pai Mei then is no kindly teacher, but a vengeful, violent man with a hugely inflated sense of pride. This ego is somewhat merited though, as he is clearly a Kung Fu Master of considerable talents.
Bill was one of his past students, and still esteems his sifu enough that he requests his own assassins be taught by the white haired old sadist. It is through Beatrix Kiddo's (Uma Thurman) training that we see most of Pai Mei on screen, in the portion of the film entitled "The tutelage of Pai Mei". Before she meets the master however, Bill warns her in no uncertain terms to show proper respect at all times.
"Whatever - WHAT-EVER - Pai Mei says, obey. If you flash him, even for an instant, a defiant eye, he'll pluck it out. And if you throw any American sass his way, he will snap your back and your neck like they were twigs, and that will be the story of you."
Kiddo not only manages to endure the prolonged abuse without causing too much offence, but even endears herself enough to be taught the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique (this is remarkable as Pai Mei normally hates caucasians, Americans and women). Even Bill was never taught this attack, which is eventually his undoing.
Like all true Kung Fu Masters, Pai Mei ensures his students will never receive such a painful regime of beating and punishment as they suffer during his training.
She is not Bill's only student however, and he sends another femme fatale called Elle Driver to study with the master. Elle is an altogether more defiant character than Beatrix, and eventually cracks under the pressure, calling Pai Mei "a miserable old fool". Given his past history, she was probably fortunate that this merely costs her an eye.
Pai Mei gives a practical demonstration that Elle's reactions aren't a patch on his!
Not being the sort to forgive being mutilated, the woman who would go on to become known as "Californian Mountain Snake" poisons Pai Mei's dinner, taunting him after he collapses with "How do you like the fish heads? Miserable old fool!"
With his last breaths, he tries to curse his killer, but she interrupts him contemptuously, saying "To me, the word of an old fool like you is worth less than nothing!"
The advantage of poisoning fish heads is that they taste exactly the same afterwards.
Despite his short screen time, the character of Pai Mei is incredibly important to the Kill Bill story, explaining Kiddo's skills and indomitable resolve, as well as providing a rich, shared history for Bill, Kiddo and Elle. Thankfully, Gordon Liu plays the role with brilliance, managing to pay homage and parody classic Hong Kong martial arts films at the same time. His trademark "stroke beard and laugh scornfully" move is genius.