Revenge, Violence, Ethnic Identity and Sexuality:
Subversive Elements in Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I and Vol. II
In no other film does the Asian martial arts genre resonate in American mainstream movies than in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. I (2003) and Kill Bill Vol. II (2004). The epic-length film stars Uma Thurman, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, David Carradine, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Julie Dreyfus, and Chiaki Kuriyama. Although released separately, the two films share the same narrative, making many critics and viewers consider it a single film. What distinguishes Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill from American martial arts movies is its subversion of societal norms through the justification of revenge, graphic violence, and subversion of ethnic and gender identities.
Rationale for Revenge
Indeed, the entire plot of Kill Bill revolves around the quest for revenge. Its main protagonist is a woman assassin, known in the film as the Bride (Uma Thurman), who seeks vengeance after she is betrayed by her former boss and lover Bill (David Carradine). Deciding to quit after learning that she is pregnant, she is gunned down on the day of her wedding rehearsal by her former teammates in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. The main protagonist then wakes up after five years of coma, learns that her baby is gone, and decides to exact retribution from those responsible for her loss.
Narrated from the bride’s perspective, Kill Bill justifies the main protagonist’s desire for retribution. Through an old klingon proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold,” it attempts to persuade its audience of the merit of the bride’s cause. Sympathy is also established by enabling the audience to hear the Bride’s thoughts and revealing her circumstances in the early part of the movie. Likewise, the film exploits the conditioning effect of music on its audience by using a uniform theme to indicate battle sequences. Thus, the viewers are forced to validate and rationalize the unapologetic manner by which the Bride hunts down her enemies.
However, Kill Bill also succeeds in destabilizing its viewer’s sense of justice by showing the protagonist’s nemesis Bill as neither corrupt nor wicked. The gray area is where the film departs from traditional martial arts films where a purely evil anatagonist makes it easy to justify death. In Kill Bill, not everything is either black or white. As the movie rolls towards the finale and the audience’ appetite for blood has been clearly whetted, it reveals that the Bride’s daughter has survived and is taken good care of by her father. This creates a dilemma for the viewer as the validity of the Bride’s bloody rampage is challenged.
Quentin Tarantino’s fourth film shows more than enough violence that would either tittilate or turn off its audience. Thus, the film violates popular standards by assaulting its viewers with graphic images of blood and carnage. The violence is also deliberate and intended to reflect the violent intentions of majority of its characters. On the other hand, it also mirrors the influences of Asian martial arts films, Japanese samurai films, and Italian spaghetti westerns in the execution of battle scenes.
While it may be similar to hundreds of other movies with violent themes, Kill Bill stands out for its similarity to a comic strip. Much like a comic book story, it refrains from lengthy conversations and relies on action and short narration to be understood. The film also lacks from the rethoric that characterizes many revenge drama and depends on the main protagonist’s narration to show the psychological side of her brutality.
On the other hand, it also has the effect of desensitizing the viewer where violence becomes a natural aspect of the moviewatching process. This is accomplished through the exploitation of the film’s theme and its vivid images of blood, death, and carnage. In effect, the film disarms its audience from questioning the intentions of its main protagonist or even critically examining the accuracy of her narrative. By assaulting the senses with the cruelty done to the bride and her unborn baby, Kill Bill defends the violence in the manner by which justice is exacted.
At the same time, the use of over the top violence can also be viewed as a critique of pop culture. The depiction of violent scenes becomes an illustration of how violence becomes normal and acceptable in today’s culture. The film therefore delivers it in large doses along with pop music to show that today’s society has transformed violence into entertainment.
Subversion of Ethnic Identity and Sexuality
Another defining aspect of the film is its subversion of ethnic identities through the portrayal of a Caucasian as a master in a traditionally Asian art popularized by such actors as Bruce Lee. This aspect of the film is heightened by a particular scene wherein an Asian martial arts master, Pai Mei, grudgingly accedes to teach his knowledge to the Bride. The Asian master takes in a Caucasian protegee despite the fact that he “hates Caucasians, despises Americans, and has nothing but contempt for women,” (www.imsdb.com) which demonstrates a huge gap between the West’s and the East’s culture.
In teaching The Bride the art of fighting, Pai Mei not only transfers his knowledge but also his ethnic identity. Thus, the film creates a contrast between The Bride’s physical identity as an American and her fighting skill as an Asian, ironically fusing the West with Eastern orientalism. On the other hand, the contempt between the two cultures is also implied when Pai Mei plucks out Elle Driver’s (Darryl Hannah) eye for her irreverence. Elle, codenamed “California Mountain Snake” in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, poisons the master in return. In Asian culture, Elle Driver’s method of murder not only implies betrayal but is also a cowardly act.
Through its hidden texts, the film debunks the myth of Western superiority. This irony is pronounced at the end of the finale where The Bride, supposedly killed through a bullet symbolic of western technology, avenges herself through hand to hand combat and swordfight with Bill. She thus kills him through a fatal attack called the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique that unknown to Bill was taught to her by Pai Mei.
Another cultural clash explored and subverted by the film is the relationship between “White” Americans and African-americans. For instance, the Bride is codenamed “Black Mamba,” to the chagrin and envy of her African-American co-assassin Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). The Bride later kills Green but accidentally does it in front of the latter’s daughter. This event signifies the continuing tension between the two cultures and how it is bound to be continued to the next generation.
Kill Bill also subverts gender norms by making its main protagonist a woman assassinbut at the same time reinforces them with the overriding motivation of motherhood. In a clear departure from the majority of mainstream action films, the lead character’s identity as The Bride directly signifies femininity. This Bride, however, does not use her “womanly charms” or her sexuality to achieve her ends. She engages her enemies squarely in combat and proves to be the equal of men in every aspect.
The film’s narrative itself challenges the traditional concepts of women’s role. Typically, it is the husband or the man who seeks revenge for his wronged family. In most cases, the wife is either kept in the background, used as bait by his enemies, and usually helpless to even help herself. Therefore, the Bride’s character is a direct threat to the “blonde and dumb” and other stereotype of women peddled in movies and in real life.
The allusion to the revenge and awakening of the blonde and women in general is persistent in the movie. The Bride, upon recovering from her coma, realizes that she has been sexually violated and sold for sexual access by a hospital orderly while unconscious. She kills him in the most painful manner along with two truck drivers who paid to have sex with her. Another character and member of the Deadly Vipers, O’ Ren-Ishii (Lucy Liu), kills the pedophile Yakuza master who masterminded the murder of her parents. It is worthy to note that Carradine himself once starred in the lead roles of martial arts movies. To be defeated by a woman in this film therefore speaks volumes about the inversion and subversion of gender roles.
Thus, Tarantino’s Kill Bill not only succeeds in either entertaining or disgusting his audience with the images of violence but also challenges the established norms of filmmaking and society in general. His homage to the martial arts genre is therefore both an acclaim and a criticism of how violence, sexuality, and ethnic identities have usually been depicted in mainstream movies.
“Kill Bill Script Written by Quentin Tarantino.” IMSDb Website. 03/21/2008. http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Kill-Bill-Volume-1-&-2.html
Kill Bill Vol. I. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, David Carradine, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Julie Dreyfus, and Chiaki Kuriyama. Miramax, 2003.
Kill Bill Vol. II. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Uma Thurman, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, David Carradine, Vivica A. Fox, Michael Madsen, Julie Dreyfus, and Chiaki Kuriyama. Miramax, 2004.