Legendary figures from martial arts mythology have extraordinary powers, which film’s multiple retellings further exaggerate. Here, the big fight scene plays with Kiddo’s superhuman strength and thus makes a playful commentary on the genre itself.

The mathematics of power fascinate us when one person fights against the many. This shot shows how the many (the Crazy 88’s) respect the power of the one (Kiddo). Movement cues further highlight Kiddo’s martial power, based on mastery and self-control. She stands motionless and centered while the many skitter nervously around her. Merely a slight twitch of her body causes nervous movement within the circling group.

The theme of excess - especially blood - plays a large role in how Tarantino depicts this woman’s stand against the Crazy 88’s. Note fountains of blood spraying from two opponents on frame left.

Japanese samurai films from the 1970s on often used extreme blood effects. Tarantino takes the visual convention to even greater excess, thus playing with genre expectations.

Symmetry in movement can seem comic. Sequences such as this one - in which Kiddo cleaves an opponent neatly in two - contribute to the fight sequence’s postmodern playfulness.

Some choreographic devices now border on cliché. We've seen so many fights in silhouette that this sequence from Kill Bill can evoke memories from the entire action film genre.

Wire-work, fighting while “flying” or otherwise moving contrary to gravity, is one of Yuen Wo-ping’s signature choreographic devices.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s wire-work dazzled Western viewers unfamiliar with the convention. The film’s international success made Wo-ping’s style of fight choreograpy instantly “hot."

This sequence from Kill Bill follows almost the exact same choreographic formula as the sequence from Crouching Tiger above. A woman armed with a single sword is bouncing and spinning off of a wall to attack an opponent armed with double swords, who manages to parry the blow. What this picture does not show is how similar the two films’ rhythms are, that is, the time it takes to perform the movements.

Kiddo and O-Ren Ishii fight in a snow covered Zen garden in a scene that directly juxtaposes violence and tranquility.

O-Ren’s costume creates a number of juxtapositions: including violence with purity, and strength with beauty. Sword and scabbard deliberately extend and accentuate the line of the body. Further “play” comes from the fact that the “Chinese-American” Lucy Liu” plays the “Japanese” O-Ren.

Red blood trickling into white snow suggests the Japanese Buddhist concept of yugen or ephemeral beauty, which is considered among the highest forms of beauty.

Unlike other blows in the film, we do not see the cut that kills O-Ren. Instead we see blood spraying on clean white snow. Blood thrown from blades is a common iconographic theme in Kill Bill1.

Women’s role in violent stories has changed over the years. Trinity from The Matrix exemplifies a trend of showing women characters as personally empowered through their ability to do violence.

Tarantino plays with concepts of strong female characters. Here Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) dresses as a Japanese schoolgirl (also the costume of a popular sexual fetish). She is also one of Kill Bill’s most psychopathic characters.

Gogo’s violent actions directly challenge traditional gender roles. The ability to do violence means one thus has the ability to coerce or control others by force. Such a trait visibly marks a character as “powerful.” In this way, violent actions within a film’s narrative may seem to “empower” female characters. The degree to which this empowerment is either “real” or “good” remains controversial.

The economy of connoisseurship

Nearly everything in Kill Bill operates in part as homage to other films. For instance, the opening credit sequence and music evoke memories of Hong Kong’s legendary Shaw Brother’s films of the 1970s. Several actors were chosen in part because of their links to famous martial arts stories. In particular, Bill is played by David Carradine of Kung Fu television series fame—even Bill’s flute in Kill Bill is the same instrument Caradine played as Caine in that series. Hatori Hanzo is played by Sonny Chiba—who played several incarnations of that same character in the 1970s series Shadow Warriors / Kage No Gundan; in fact it was Tarantino’s intention that Kill Bill’s Hanzo would essentially be the “100th incarnation” of that same character. And the characters Jonny Mo and Pai Mei are both played by Gordon Liu—of The 36 Chambers of Shaolin fame; there is also an additional significance that some film fans might note in that some of Liu’s early films with Shaw Brothers involved his fighting against the same character Pai Mei that he plays in Kill Bill. There is thus a certain connoisseurship at work even in the casting. In this way, Kill Bill is strikingly postmodern in the sense that it deliberately plays with the audience’s knowledge of its source material. For certain audience members, a large part of the pleasure of watching the films is therefore the sheer frission of recognizing the references. As one review of Kill Bill: Volume 1 noted:

“While you don't have to recognize a single reference to enjoy the movie, the very nature of the film also makes it a parlor game for hardcore film geeks. Ooo, is that strikingly designed shot from Hideo Gosha or Seijun Suzuki?... There’s an element from Once upon a time in the West... that fight concept is from King Hu... Wait a minute, what is an early Brian De Palma scene doing here???” (Klein)

In addition to the actors already listed, another name in the opening credits, Yuen Wo-Ping, has particular significance for “hardcore” fans of martial arts films. Like other films, martial arts films have “stars” who supply economic and cultural clout; but unlike other types of films, martial arts film stars sometimes include fight directors. Yuen Wo-Ping, in particular, has become a highly recognizable name in the industry. His work became especially influential in the West after 2000 when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon earned four academy awards and—more important—gained international success at the box office. Those familiar with a range of Hong Kong action films will recognize that the fight scenes in Crouching Tiger were not actually all that different from those Wo-Ping (and others) had been choreographing for years in Hong Kong. Yet the large budget Crouching Tiger enjoyed allowed much greater production values than many of the films Wo-Ping had worked on to that point. This, coupled with the international box office success of the film made that choreographic style instantly “hot.” As a result, one of Wo-Ping’s signature choreographic devices in which characters fight while “flying"—wire-work—quickly became the fighting style de jour in many action films. (A short list of films not choreographed by Wo-Ping that nevertheless imitate this style includes: The Musketeer, The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Underworld, Charlie’s Angels, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Exit Wounds, Blade, Blade II and many others.) It is therefore significant that Wo-Ping’s name is listed as “Martial Arts Advisor” in the opening credits, especially since Wo-Ping’s work on Kill Bill was not actually as extensive as it was on many of the other films that brought his name to prominence in the West. (Also, in this film, the prominence of the credit placement is an unusual honor for a fight director since such billing is usually buried in the final credits.)

In “The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 2,” David Carradine describes the process of fight direction in the films:

“In the script, the fights are described in detail. Basically, [Tarantino] designed the fights. He basically was the choreographer. When he first talked to Yuen Wo-Ping about him coming in and doing the picture, that was an idea he had. Why not have this guy from Crouching Tiger and the Matrix, you know, who did all these wonderful things? And he went through a lot of stuff with Wo-Ping and Wo-Ping said, ‘What do you need me for?’ and the truth is he doesn't need anybody else. He can probably make these movies all by himself.”

I mention this, not to downplay Wo-Ping’s contribution to the films, but rather to highlight the fact that Tarantino’s aesthetic—especially his noted familiarity with other films—greatly influenced the fight design. In other words, the fight scenes in Kill Bill—like much of the plot itself—were specifically designed as multi-layered homages to other films. The prominent placement of Wo-Ping’s name in the credits demonstrates how important these fight scenes were for the overall marketing of the film. In fact, nearly all of the iconographic images used to market the films include references to fighting. (For example, all of the poster images for the film prominently feature a “Hatori Hanzo” katana). Using “star power” to market films in this manner is of course nothing new, but using the name of a fight director (here: “martial arts advisor") as an economic draw points out the extent to which Kill Bill operates within a larger framework of violent media consumption.

Philosopher Jean Baudrillard reconfigured Marxist theory to suggest that in the modern world, consumption—rather than production—is the basis of the social order. Where Marx identified contradictions between classes in relation to the production of commodities, Baudrillard suggests that modern distinctions between class and culture are now more the result of conspicuous consumption. Thus, for instance, the choice to buy a Mercedes rather than a Hyundai has more to do with buying into a system of class differentiation than it has to do with meeting basic transportation needs. Likewise, there is a certain economy of identity associated with being a film “connoisseur.” Numerous websites exist in which fans of Kill Bill distinguish themselves into a type of social order based on who “gets” the references and who doesn't; who’s seen a particular other film and who hasn't. In fact, even for those who are not “hardcore film geeks,” the very choice to watch a film like Kill Bill rather than, say, a Merchant Ivory film or similar involves certain elements of social differentiation. In this sense, fans of Kill Bill can be seen as reveling in—or possibly directly challenging—the “low” culture status of their entertainment choice.[9]

However, watching a film is even more of an ephemeral experience than is owning a Mercedes, and so if one wants to be an “action film connoisseur,” one has to keep consuming the products that make one such. The products available for consumption include not only other live action films but also anime, comic books, video games (as in Enter the Matrix or many other video games that let you “enter” the world of the film, including any of the numerous Star Wars or Lord of the Rings games, Hulk, Predator versus Alien and many, many more), books or magazine articles about the films, “the making of” style documentaries about the films, websites, action figures or collectable figurines, etc... all of which exist in a self-referential stream of commodification. In Baudrillardian terms we might say that all of these things are themselves also signs pointing towards other commodities. In this sense, many products in the “postmodern” world are simply part of a much larger web of marketing. Thus, films advertise games advertise spin-off products and so on. A viewer, and moreso a fan, cannot be a film connoisseur by simply buying or watching one product. The term itself only has meaning in relation to an entire system of products. As regards action films, the most significant point here is that one of the primary things—if not the primary thing—that links the objects together is violence: as a common theme in the stories, as common iconographies of representation, as the main selling point of the “action” in the video games and in the underlying embodied ethos of the stories themselves.[10] Although many of these links have to do with “inner” things such as ethos, they must nevertheless be represented visually. One of the main spectatorial pleasures of watching Kill Bill for many film fans therefore is recognizing the iconographical or thematic shortcuts that link some of the stories together.

Fights in Kill Bill as
character description

Even if viewers miss the significance of the title, our very introduction to world of Kill Bill suggests violence as an underlying ethos. The opening scene from Kill Bill: Volume 1 showing a bloody Bride [Uma Thurman] about to be shot in the head, immediately establishes violence as a central theme for both films. That theme is reinforced by the lyrics to the opening song by Sonny Bono:

“Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down.”

Likewise, the first full scene (chapter 2) progresses as a prolonged martial arts fight between two assassins who used to be coworkers. This is a standard conceit for many martial arts films from the 1970s and early 1980s (as is the blaring music and flashback montage of the original “wrong” done to the lead character), but the connoisseur twist in Kill Bill is that this otherwise standard violent confrontation takes place in a quite house on a quite suburban Pasadena street. Even the weapons used in this fight highlight the unusual juxtaposition between the “epic” struggle of assassins and the “mundane” setting: fire irons, curio book-selves, kitchen knives and frying pans are all used. In fact, the defining moment of this fight comes as the two combatants pause in front of a picture window to watch a bus pull up and discharge a small girl home from school (Nikki Bell / Ambrosia Kelley). When the young girl then opens the front door, both fighters quickly hide their knives and cooperate to convince the girl that Beatrix Kiddo (Thurman) is just an “old friend of mommie’s” (Vernita Green / Vivica A. Fox).

This exchange is meant to be funny, but it also dramatizes two important character traits of Kiddo. She is not only a highly trained martial artist bent on revenge, but she also has deep maternal qualities that extend even to the child of her enemy. Likewise, the fact that Kiddo can quickly “turn off” her immediate desire for revenge speaks to the professional nature of her martial ability. That is, although her quest for revenge is deeply personal, here we see it conducted in an almost detached manner. In this way, although the script uses her ability to do violence as a definitive character trait, so too it emphasizes her ability to choose not to do so. This subtle distinction later contrasts with the actions of other characters who have difficulty not being violent. In particular, Elle Driver / Darryl Hanna later expresses great dissatisfaction with not being allowed to kill the comatose Kiddo. And, most definitively defining a character, almost everything that we discover about Bill / Carradine in both films suggests that he is thoroughly given over to violent actions. In fact, he even describes himself as “a murdering bastard.”

Kiddo’s ability to turn off her impulse for revenge is a subtle distinction, but one crucial for audience empathy. Although she is described by the other major characters as a cold-blooded assassin and often acts as such, both films script in narrative shortcuts to suggest that Kiddo is undergoing a psychological change. In the world of action films, this process of change makes Kiddo a multi-dimensional, even complex, character. Therein too lies part of the connoisseurs’ delight, for many characters in previous revenge films had little use for subtlety (Charles Bronson’s character in Death Wish or Clint Eastwood’s in Dirty Harry were particularly single-minded). In this early scene, Kiddo’s speech to the little girl shortly after killing her mother also suggests a fairness missing from earlier vengeful characters:

“It was not my intention to do this in front of you. For that I'm sorry. But you can take my word for it, your mother had it coming. When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I'll be waiting.”

In the shorthand of martial arts films, this fairness marks Kiddo as a deliberately honorable person, since a “bad” character would have tried to kill the child as well.[11] More significantly, immediately after this act of relative compassion, we hear a voice-over by Sonny Chiba in Japanese (subtitled) quoting from a version of the samurai bushido code:

“For those regarded as warriors... when engaged in combat... the vanquishing of thine enemy can be the warrior’s only concern. Suppress all human emotion and compassion... kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.”

This deliberately philosophical quote coming so soon after Kiddo’s act of compassion suggests that the character has started a fundamental inner transformation. Indeed the forcefulness of this advice even suggests that Kiddo’s compassion might function for her as the martial-arts-film equivalent of a tragic flaw. Historically, most action films treat personal change as a dangerous thing (especially for assassins). In the same vein, setting up their protagonists’ major flaws, films such as Scarface, Carlito’s Way or even The Karate Kid highlight the dangers of only half-hearted commitment to violent actions. Thus, genre conventions suggest that Kiddo will most likely—yet knowingly—pay a personal price for failing to kill all her potential enemies.

Kiddo’s compassionate, maternal side returns to take center stage in the conclusion to Volume 2. Toward the end of that film, we learn that Kiddo’s discovery that she was pregnant led her to flee Bill in the first place (and thus set off his violent actions against her). Initially this realization motivates Kiddo not to want to fight anymore. As she says to the assassin sent to kill her: “I'm the deadliest woman in the world[12] but right now I'm just scared shitless for my baby.” Later she tells Bill:

“Before that [pregnancy test] strip turned blue... I was a killer who killed for you. Before that strip turned blue I would have jumped a motorcycle onto a speeding train [a possible reference to Michelle Yeoh’s signature stunt in Supercop]... but once that strip turned blue I could no longer do any of those things... because I was going to be a mother.”

This speech’s rhyming, poetic construction characterizes Tarantino’s signature use of heightened language. But even more significant, the rhyme scheme here is broken up by the word “mother.” Thus the film deliberately juxtaposes the role of an assassin alongside the role of a mother—first seen in the living room fight described above. Likewise, part of the connoisseur’s joy of watching the films comes from the script twist in which Tarantino seems to suggest that violence shapes both roles. For example in the final confrontation, Bill describes to Kiddo with pride how their daughter B.B. / Perla Hanley-Jardine “learned about life and death” by deliberately killing her beloved goldfish, Emilio.     

In fact, the title itself tells us that the conclusion to Volume 2 is never in doubt (we know Kiddo will kill Bill). So it is fitting that the final confrontation between the two is not visually dramatic in the same manner as any of the other fights in either film. Rather, the titular fight is conducted as a philosophical debate about Kiddo’s possible maternal abilities—given the fact that she is, as Bill suggests, a “natural born killer” (also a reference to a film of the same name). We are shown repeatedly throughout both films how Kiddo lives as a ruthless, trained assassin. In fact, major sequences from both films are devoted to showing the rigors of her training (especially in sequences showing Kiddo’s training with Pai Mei) or the ruthlessness of an assassin’s life (especially in those scenes dealing with the “Origin” of O-Ren Ishii). In this sense, the film itself is not simply a revenge drama, but also a story of redemption. The only way that Kiddo can deserve a normal life is to pay penance for her own past life. This penance, however, takes the form of more violent actions, involving both Kiddo’s ability to inflict harm upon others as well as her ability to endure pain and injury herself.     

Continued: Penance and power

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