Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2
Quentin Tarantino's films Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 have been on my Heroine Content "to review" list for quite some time now, and I'm excited to have finally re-watched them and to be reviewing them. For the purposes of my comments here, I'm taking them as Tarantino originally intended, as one film, not as a film and its sequel. I'm not making any particular distinction between the events/characters of the first and second volumes.
First, on race: the cast of Kill Bill is multi-racial. The film's central characters, the members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad are two white women, The Bride and Elle Driver (Uma Thurman and Daryl Hannah), a white man, Budd (Michael Madsen), an Asian woman, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), and a Black woman, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). Bill himself (David Carradine) is white. The film subverts traditional racial roles in both subtle and less subtle ways. One more subtle subversion is the roles the former Viper squad women have taken when The Bride comes back to seek revenge on them. It is the other white woman, Elle Driver, who has stayed with Bill. The Black woman, Vernita Green, seems to be living a successful and even mainstream suburban life, and the Asian woman, O-Ren Ishii, has become the boss of the Yakuza. Of all of the Deadly Vipers, only the Black woman, Vernita, has left her life of crime behind.
A more direct commentary on race is made in the infamous scene where O-Ren Ishii is taking control of the Tokyo crime underworld and one of the other heads of families makes disparaging remarks not only about her gender, but also about her Chinese and American ancestry (O-Ren is supposed to be Chinese-Japanese-American). O-Ren's response, in part, is "The price you pay for bringing up either my Chinese or American heritage as a negative is... I collect your fucking head." This is after she has beheaded the offender. Makes a pretty clear point about being accepting of other races, and of mixed race people.
O-Ren's gang, the Crazy 88, is, among other things, a study in Japanese stereotypes. They are hyper violent, arrogant, hard drinking, and painfully fashionable in their dark suits. O-Ren's personal bodyguard, Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama) dresses as a schoolgirl. But the intentionality of the stereotypes, and the way in which they are both a nod to themselves and to subversion makes them feel more anti-racist than racist. The same is true of legendary sword maker Hattori Hanzo (Sonny Chiba) martial arts guru Pai Mai (Chia Hui Liu)--though they do play characters that are in some way typical, or even "stock," Tarantino is clear that he understands those characters as such, and they come off as a both a nod to the days when these were the only options for Asian film and as a subtle subversion of the stock characters they represent.
Situating Kill Bill in feminist discourse is just as complicated as in anti-racist discourse. First, the obvious: The Bride (and the amazing Zoe Bell, who makes her possible) is a badass. The scene in the first film where she takes on the entire Crazy 88 is the stuff of legend, and her grittier beat down of Elle (the eye! the snake!) in the second film is both gruesome and inspiring. I love that she is a female character out for revenge and that she has no mercy on those who have wronged her. That being said, I hate how often she seems to be doing it because of her (assumed dead) child and not on her own behalf. The Deadly Vipers beat her up and then Bill shot her in the head. That ought to be why she's pissed. That she was pregnant when they did it is secondary.
Like any Tarantino movie, Kill Bill isn't without its share of horrible sexual abuse and graphic, gruesome violence against women. The attempted murder of The Bride and her murder of her wedding party is really just the beginning. The Bride is raped repeatedly while she is in a coma, not only by hospital employee Buck ("Your name is Buck. You came here to fuck."), but by the men to whom he rents out her immobile body. Later, she's buried alive. The child O-Ren watches from under a bed while her parents are murdered in an animated segment, and then is forced to copulate with the pedophile who murdered them in order to get into position to take her revenge. However, the moral universe is pretty clear in Kill Bill--the bad guys always pay, and they pay at the hands of the women they've wronged. The Bride's revenge on both Buck and the pervert to whom he rented her out when she had just come out of her coma is suitably brutal, and all the more impressive for her having enacted it without the use of her legs (in the case of the unnamed pervert, with just her teeth). So, if you can handle watching the horrors, you are rewarded with the vengeance. But don't underestimate the horrors.
My only real gender related problem with Kill Bill is the set up of the Deadly Viper squad to begin with. Why in the world are these four beautiful, smart, deadly women working for Bill in the first place? He gives the orders, they do the deeds? Why? What's in it for them? These questions are never answered to my satisfaction, and I'm particularly bothered by the way O-Ren, Vernita, and Elle seem all too happy to attack The Bride at Bill's behest. Particularly with Elle, this seems to be in part due to jealousy between the women for Bill's attentions, and that's something I can live without seeing.
Then there is, of course, the mommy angle. Both The Bride and Vernita are mothers, and motherhood The Bride's big motivating factor. However, this didn't bother me as much in these films as it normally does, if only because non-mommy figures are portrayed as well (O-Ren and Elle), and because Bill takes fatherhood pretty seriously, too.
All in all, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Kill Bill Vol. 2 are great action movies. They are entertaining, suitably badass, and very female-centered. Like Tarantino's other films, they don't appear at the outset to be great works of gender and racial equity, but if you scratch the surface, you'll see that the stereotypes aren't really quite what they seem. Somewhere, in the stylization and the absurd witticisms and the painstaking soundtrack, there is subversion, and I like that. Four stars.