December 05, 2007

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.

More commentary:

9 Comments

One thing of note about the mommy-issues in Kill Bill is that both Beatrix and Vernita's children are *daughters*.

Wow, it's not often my timing matches yours, since it seemed to be a film I either hadn't watched, or watched eons ago. But you reviewed it, and it just so happened to be on Spike tv. I usually don't tend to like gratuitous violence - even well placed – but, since it was on Spike (and therefore somewhat edited), I thought I would watch it.
Oh, and this may go over about as well as my liking of Alien 3, but I watched the last hour of the first part, and I saw all of the second part just now, and I have to say, I absolutely hated the film. I could sleep on it, and tomorrow tell you my feelings are a bit more muted. But for the moment, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone. And in terms of heroine content, I would give this sucker zero stars! I thought it was wretched both in gender and ethnic – ESPECIALLY – ethnic content.
Here’s my reasoning, and do feel free to shoot holes in it! :) Oh and feel free to edit any spoiler content! I really wanted to like this film, especially since so many people felt that this was not only a good film, but a great one in terms of female action. So it actually saddens me to feel this way – but the whole thing just put a sour taste in my mouth.
In terms of ethnic content, the best metaphor for how bad it seems to me were the credits when Beatrix is driving (after the credits) . It shows Lucy Liu’s name with a red mark through it, it shows Vivica Fox’s name with a red line through it, and it shows Michael Madsen’s name with a red line through it (I think) even though we know she doesn’t kill him. But David Carradine’s name does not have a line through it. And Darryl Hannah’s name has a question mark? We don’t even know if she is dead. And what that seems to show me is that minority=expendable, and non-minority= non-expendable.
While Tarrantino seems to be undercutting stereotypes, someone who does that too much seems not to be undercutting them, but using them under the guise of undercutting. Since I didn’t see the beginning, I could be wrong on this, but it seems like everything seems to be in correct chronological order except for Vivica Fox’s scene. Why is hers first? Lucy Liu technically is the one she killed first, but why on Earth do we see Vivica killed first? Just seems to me he went out of his way to “kill the African American first,” which can’t possibly be construed as an homage, since this seemed to please no African American I knew. Moreover, the very fact that she kills her in front of her daughter – but not just that, that the daughter just stands there – emotionless. Why was she denied her grief? It’s not normal; It was almost as if Tarrantino was either saying the daughter was somehow in agreement with it, the daughter was somehow inhuman, or the daughter was somehow akin to a killer. I hope it played better in the film; but since I missed it, I looked up the script. And Beatrix seemed the most disrespectful to her as well – not just the manner in which she dealt with her, but with the language she used. And I felt like her line “about her being Connie now but really being Vernita” was a subtle little dig not just at her former past, but more about her ethnicity. And her line to the daughter seemed to be cold and callous, and part of me wishes she would grow up and murder her; because how ironic that she decried mercy for her since she lost her baby, when really her baby was alive all the time, but now the daughter is deprived of a mother, and she has a memory (unlike her baby, which would have not even been born yet).
And I saw the O-Ren parts, and I just wasn’t loving that part as much as I wanted to. There were some great moments, but I simply grew tired of every asian cliché in the book jammed into the scenes. I love the fact that Lucy Liu was no joke – but that just as easily plays into the whole ‘dragon lady’ stereotype. And in fact, Lucy caught grief for that a while back because people wondered why sheconstantly chose those types of roles. But for all her being so ruthless and so powerful that she was the head of the Yakuza – a feat in and of itself for a female, let alone a foreign female. But there was all this fanfare about their fight, with her pulling off her shoes, and pulling out her sword, and that fight was soooo brief!? I was thinking, wait, that’s it? And on top of that, she cuts off her head? It seems as if she dispatches both vipers of color rather brutally and ruthlessly. And while she did yank Elle’s eye out, she left her alive…alive enough that she gets a question mark at the end, and a possible chance to come back.
In general terms you leave your strongest opponents for last, and how is it that with the exception of the smarmy rape guys, the European characters are saved until last. Elle and her get a great fight scene! It was really well done, in terms of suspense. The crazy 88 almost seemed like people she was merely cutting through. At least Gogo gave her a real threat of some kind.
In terms of gender content, I though it was pretty terrible too. How is it that the one viper who truly bested her was the guy? And he did it rather unceremoniously too….and quickly. It was the two guys who brought her the closest to death. You can tell that Bill was just playing around with her too. He loved her still, and it was only because she learned that move. But it is a bloodless, painless, looking death he had – where she is crying, it’s drawn out and almost beautiful.
If you wonder why they would work for him, it seemed to me like a glorified version of the prostitute/pimp scenario. They work for him, and he gets the benefits. And even though he puts the hit out on her, she saves her venom for her team mates – for the people who pretty much do the same thing that she does? Kill for a living?
I’m probably going on, so I’ll quit after this. But the most egregious thing to me was that in the strictict sense of the website title, this movie was totally devoid of all “heroine” content. Yes, she kicked major butt, but that doesn’t make a hero. And often a hero in the film learns from their actions. And I felt she never learns. She never learns, she just keeps going. I felt little to no sympathy to her at all, she seemed like a monster – just a killing machine. I think Bill was right, and that little tack-on at the end about her and her baby didn’t seem to help at all. It just made her seem selfish. When Bill asked her why she was surprised by his behavior considering he loved her and he was a killer, she still said yes. It was at this point she still could have kept her anger, her vengeance, but still said she saw. She just seemed like a spoiled brat to me. She decides she wants out, but instead of being up front about it, she takes the coward’s way out and ditches him. She could have even sent him a letter. Then when they do to her what she has done to countless people, then she feels vindicated to go on a murdering spree until she feels better and gets her kid. And then, oh, everything is ok again? Mindless killing is not female empowerment at all – it is female imprisonment. If Quentin was trying to make a statement about violence, then someone would have had to cite it. I guess it was bill, but that is weak.
Maybe he tried, but while people celebrate the Godfather series, at least in the first one, Coppola showed how corrupting absolutely violence was. And you even get this in Eastwood films (and many of his are horribly stereotypical for women). But in this one, I get the sense that I am supposed to clap and applaud the Bride while she goes on her murderous killing spree just because she’s p’d off? She is no worse than the others, and what’s worse, it seems like many had already left that life, and saw the wrongness of it. I think the guy, Bud, was dead on when he said that they deserved what they got…but then said so did she (the Bride). It almost doesn’t seem like the bride’s movie at all, since there seems to be no real arc to her character. Everyone, save those rapists, seems to be more dimensional than the bride. The movie seems more like an advisory tale of beware what you do in life – regardless of your reasoning (bill), regardless of your epiphaniy and your repentence (Vernita – when they showed the brief clip of the near murder at the end you can already see in her eyes the beginning of remorse), regardless of anything, it will bite you in the end. The bride was like the snake – an awesome metaphor, but a lousy example of a heroine in film.
Hey on the plus side – this to me, seems to be the perfect terminator! And the fact that Quentin didn’t let her female-ness get in the way of making a flat, 1.5 dimensional killing machine is a right step in another direction.
Hope it’s ok I shared. I know I’m in the minority, since I know no one who doesn’t like this who saw it (though I do know a few who thought it was too violent to even consider).
BUT!...as always, I am still glad you reviewed it! :) Thanks.

I think someone's gunning for a guest poster spot? ;)

Good point about the Viper Assassins working for Bill. Why? I make the same argument about the anime Gunslinger Girl.

I can't see this movie and am not allowed to based on the fact that it's rated R. But, I don't understand it. You say that she shouldn't care about taking revenge because of her dead child. She should take revenge for herself. So are you saying that a heroine is a selfish woman who doesn't care about her child? Yeah, so, enough said.

This movie is pandemic for the problem of portraying of female heroines in Hollywood movies. Always skinny girls with bodies more that of a super model than a warrioress.

Sorry but I simply cannot take a person seriously where she doesnt look like she could do ten push ups.

More female actors like those who played Sarah Connor in T2, Vazquez in Aliens and Valerius in Conan!

Uma Thurman just looks pathetic when she tries to look badass.

Ok, d, I thought that your 'review' based on watching the beggining hour and the last houyr and a half of the edited for Spike version of the movie was really really laughable. I think you are really reaching. REALLY. You think the order in which the characters were killed = racism. Sorry I disagree.

Also Shakor, I have met Zoe Bell, the stunt woman that did all the stunt work in the movies for Uma and let me tell you, she is one tough cookie and not the usual hollywood looking type. I guess you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. Wasnt a lot of the criticism directed against her in Death Proof because she *didn't* look like a supermodel/hotchick??

And as for Bill. Why they worked for him. He had a team. He is the charasmatic, charming, deadly leader. When you have crime gangs someone has to be the boss. Perhaps they learnt things from him, ala David Carradines "grasshopper" days. Perhaps it was a shout out to the fact the fact that he was now a teacher instead of the student. I am inclined to believe that because of all the various pop culture references and ongoing external storyarcs scattered throughout Tarantinos film.


Great review Grace :)

Kill Bills Redux! :p
Hey there Charlotte! I wasn’t reviewing it, just posting my take on what I saw. And I saw all of Kill Bill II, just ½ of Kill Bill I – started watching it and was called away to do something. If I happen to catch it again on tv I’ll watch the whole thing (since regardless of how problematic I think the execution was, it’s for many action-heroine canon); but that was my first impression.

There does seem to be a very consistent, and very almost intractable tradition in Hollywood of having people of color, and I would say especially African-American characters, killed off quickly. Also, most films (most U.S. films, but foreign ones as well – especially the various martial arts flicks Quentin is referencing) start at the lowest point and work themselves up into a huge climax. So the things that occur at the end of the film are bigger: be it in action, in conflict, in poignancy, you name it. And those two things dove-tail here. Quentin’s storytelling implies that Vernita’s character (whether you see it as one movie or two) is the lowest wo/man on the totem pole, and he clearly goes out of his way to do it.

So it’s cool if there’s disagreement, but I guess my question was then, as it is now, why change the story order? (And that’s really to anyone who either knows or wants to speculate :)) He does it in Pulp Fiction, but it seems to serve the purpose of highlighting the choices between Jackson and Travolta’s characters. In the KBs, he only changes that one, everything else plays traditionally. If he would have just placed her first, or jumped all over the two volumes, it might not have showed up on my radar. But since it was done only with her, it gives it added weight, whether he meant to or not.

Oh, by the way, I talked to a friend not too long after I saw it, and she recommended “No Country For Old Men”, because she thought the way I described the Bride reminded her a lot of Chigurh (Javier’s character). And when I saw it I definitely saw a resemblance. When I think of the Bride as a heroine, I don’t. I see her more as a force of power to be respected and not crossed. Bill pretty much says that at the end (or the end of volume 2). In that sense it’s awesome because I can’t recall another movie that puts a female in that role – though I don’t think Quentin meant that either.

I would agree though that the KBs do have some very strong moments, moments that are just sadly missing in many action films for women.

I've also wondered why Vernita's scene was shown first if she was killed second. I think it's because Quentin felt - if Beatrix had Vernita as the first person on her 'Death List' - that critics would interpret that as him playing on the "black-person-always-dies-first" trope, and thus deem it to be racist. So that may be why Quentin placed Vernita as Beatrix's second target.

As for why Quentin chose to show Vernita's scene first, well, it's quite simple really. I bet he wanted to leave viewers with a climatic cliff-hanger at the end of Volume 1; he wanted to make us thirsty for more Kill Bill. Since Vernita's scene is relatively dull and bland compared to O-Ren's, it makes sense why Quentin would want to end off Volume 1 with O-Ren instead of Vernita.


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