JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Throughout the long training sequence with Pai Mei, marital ability is deliberately linked to “power.” Training sequences in most action films do the same.

Pai Mei effortlessly avoids Kiddo’s attack and fights without using a weapon or even taking his hands from behind his back. His ease visually demonstrates their relative power by making clear the degree to which he overmatches Kiddo.

Prolonged training lets us see characters voluntarily suffer physical pain and judge the strength of their inner desire. The way Kiddo suffers humiliation without complaint suggests to us her deep inner resilience and personal fortitude.

Movement cues and other cues such as blood and pain highlight the characters’ relative power. Pai Mei effortlessly plucks out Elle’s eye, which shows he has absolute mastery over not only his own body, but over Elle’s as well. Likewise, the fact that Elle could not bear the pain and humiliation of training as well as Kiddo suggests something lacking in Elle’s inner character.

When Kiddo plucks out Elle’s remaining eye, we see Kiddo can exercise a power similar to Pai Mei’s, who seemed nearly a demi-god. As the suddenness of Kiddo’s jab brings this unexpected revelation, the audience may respond with wry humor, the ah-ha of recognition.

Bill’s sudden use of firearms suggests a ruthlessness in his inner character. But the final duel between Kiddo and Bill does not involve this gun, even though their showdown takes place only moments after this scene. Here guns function as shorthand for temporary power: one is “powerful” only while the gun is out. Hand-to-hand martial ability, here involving swords, visually suggests a fully embodied, because always available, power.

Kiddo and Bill fight to the death. Although Bill has a gun and Kiddo is not expecting the attack, he nevertheless chooses to attack with a sword. The final fight is thus conducted according to Tarantino’s main themes - personalized power, swords as icons of “samurai” ethos, and martial movement as both visual spectacle and visible window into the characters’ inner emotional life.

 

Notes      

1. Campbell describes this in many of his works, including: The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Transformations of Myth through Time (1990), and in his interview with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth (1988).

2. In The Myth of the American Superhero (2002), John Lawrence and Robert Jewett suggest a reconfiguration of this structure for American film heroes: many of whom never return to their original world, but instead remain partially of the liminal world (i.e. ride off into the sunset).

3. In fact a substantial portion of the viewing public will actively seek out such entertainments whether they are readily available or not, as was the case with U.S. fans of Hong Kong action films—such as Tarantino—before those films became widely distributed on video. Most attempts to censor media violence fail to recognize the direction of this economic flow and so rather opt for sound-byte friendly calls to limit production.

4. For instance, “ninja” themes were very hot in the late 1970s and early 80s, and “muscular” male action stars were hot in the late 1980s, but neither of these themes play very well today.

5. For this reason, too, most of the actual subtleties of martial arts are left out of martial arts film fights (for only a very select few would recognize what was going on).    

6. In fact, association with philosophy is also one of the reasons that Eastern martial arts have become synonymous with the term. In other words, Western martial arts such as boxing or fencing are in fact, “martial arts,” but are rarely thought of as such because their practice consists almost entirely of technique with little or no emphasis on deeper universal harmonies.

7. For example, the practice of T'ai Qi Quan (or Tai Chi Chuan) is fundamentally linked to an early Chinese version of Taoism. Likewise Kyudo (feudal Japanese archery) in its purest form is taught in conjunction with an early Japanese form of Zen Buddhism.

8. Legitimate arguments could be anything from broad philosophical debate—such as the differences between “hard” styles or “soft” styles—to specific regional rivalries—such as the differences between “Northern” or “Southern” styles of Chinese kung fu forms.

9. In fact, fans of other “low” culture violent entertainments such as professional wrestling can be seen commenting on the “low culture” status of their entertainment community in very explicit ways.   

10. David Carradine suggests something similar when he notes in The Making of Kill Bill Volume 2: “The essence of [ Kill Bill ] is not the violence, not the action, its the inside look at the mind and the heart of violent people.”

11. There is also a double coding at work in these words, for in the world of modern Hollywood, these words also open the door for a sequel, as does the question mark hanging over Daryl Hannah’s name in the closing credit sequence from Kill Bill 2 (and, in fact, this sequel is already planned).

12. In fact, in an earlier scene between Elle Driver (Hannah) and Budd (Michael Madson), we discover that Kiddo’s code name, Black Mamba can be interpreted as “death incarnate.”

13. Yet another connoisseur twist is that Kuriyama also starred in the hit bloodletting film Battle Royale (2001) / Batoru Rowaiaru (2000).

14. This is also evident in the speech O-Ren gives immediately after beheading a henchmen who challenged her racial background and thus ability to head the Japanese yakuza—in this instance O-Ren’s violence is directly juxtaposed with the speech cliché’s of a “sensitive” and “open” leadership style.

15. For instance although the 1978 film Day of the Woman (aka: “I Spit on Your Grave”) told the story of a female rape-revenge, the poster advertising the film nevertheless relied on highly sexualized imagery. In 1991, Thelma and Louise likewise involved a rape-revenge scenario (both the attempted rape of Thelma and the past rape of Louise), yet was marketed without such blatantly exploitive imagery. And, while Thelma and Louise ignited debate about proper gender roles and violence, by 2003 and the release of Monster, audiences seemed willing to accept that women might even be serial killers.

16. There are many variations of “samurai swords”; technically the ones used in the film are katana.

17. In fact, earlier in the film, Kiddo even re-sheaths the knife she uses to kill Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox) in the manner of a katana.

Works cited

The Animatrix. Dir. Shinichirô Watanabe et al. Warner Brothers Video, 2003.

Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. 2nd Ed. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 1949. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

---- with Bill Moyers. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.

----. Transformations of Myth Through Time. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon / Wo Hu Cang Long. Dir. Ang Lee. Sony Pictures Classics and Columbia Pictures, 2000.

Dances With Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. M.G.M., 1990.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Dir. Hugh Hudson. Warner Brothers Films, 1984.

Jewett, Robert and John Lawrence. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002.

Kill Bill: Volume 1. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2003.

Kill Bill: Volume 2. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Miramax Films, 2004.

Klein, Andy. “‘Bill’ the Killer Thriller.” Los Angeles Citybeat 18: 9 October (2003).

The Last Samurai. Dir. Edward Zwick. Warner Brothers, 2003.

The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 1.   Special Features: Kill Bill: Volume 1 DVD.   Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004.

The Making of Kill Bill: Volume 2.   Special Features: Kill Bill: Volume 2 DVD. Miramax Home Entertainment, 2004.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski, 1999.

Warshow, Robert. “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed., Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. 654-67.


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