Kickassery Beyond Kung Fu: A Feminist Retrospective on Kill Bill

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This March, it’s all about girls girls girls, as MNL Film Club celebrates films with femme fatales, and not just of the noir variety. They are sassy and smart, and they will punch you in the face it will feel awesome. Above all, they’re females who laugh and cry, who may be vindictive, or insecure or shy, sword-wielding and ass-kicking or just downright crazy: they’re realistic portrayals of women in an art form where women are fetishized and highly objectified.

We’re kicking it off with Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, Quentin Tarantino’s sensational hits in 2003 and 2004, and which forever immortalized Uma Thurman in Bruce Lee’s yellow track suit.

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Lucy Liu, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Sonny Chiba, Vivica A. Fox, Gordon Liu, Julie Dreyfus

This is not the first movie to feature gun-toting and sword-slashing women, and this is certainly not the last. The idea of an avenging woman on a righteous rampage of revenge, either after being raped or abused, has not only been perenially duplicated, but also oftenly criticized. Many movies fetishize the unstoppable female who slaughter her oppressors in skintight and revealing clothing while sexualizing the violence previously inflicted on these women. None of these are present in Kill Bill, however, and the rampage of revenge is all of the glorious and awesome kind.
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Any movie by Tarrantino guarantees guts and gore, and these are overly abundant in Kill Bill, especially the first installment. The movie opens with Beatrix Kiddo, aka The Bride, on her most vulnerable: with her face puffed, cut, and bleeding, almost pleading for her life to be spared; on the next scene, we learn she was repeatedly raped while her body was in comatose for the last 4 years. Initially, all of these are cringeworthy facts to deal with, but her resolve to make the people responsible for her demise pay was a cathartic experience to Kiddo and the movie audience as well. In this regard, there is no sexism at all. Any fan of Tarantino would recognize that the quick justice in the form of bloodshed is characteristic in any of his movies, male or female villains alike. Each Deadly Viper is skilled in their chosen style, and almost each of them presents a good fight.

These are of course a given. Vol.1 and 2 have been lauded as an homage to Tarantino’s favorite films, a nod to each kung-fu and Kurusawa movies Tarantino had obsessed over. In a way, the Kill Bill saga transcends these movies by being uniquely Tarantino’s: quirky dialogues, oddball humor, and all that Tarantino jazz. Surprisingly, the wells of genres which this patchwork of a movie derives its origin from–Westerns, Noir, Samurai, French New Wave, Heist, and Hitchockian suspense–aren’t particularly feminist in tradition. On the most basic sense, Kill Bill improves all of them by stomping on the orthodox action movie, where the female acts merely as a love interest or a damsel in distress. In fact, in all her fitness, seemingly phallic weapons, and androgynous outfits, The Bride is turned into an invincible warrior, as if she isn’t available as an erotic object for the male characters in the narrative. She turns away from her lover even before her quest for revenge begins, and in her journey to kill, she trudges a lonely path.
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Nevertheless, she isn’t stripped of her femininity, It is true, however, that she is imbibed with characteristics which are normally associated with the male persona: a zen-like composure, good judgement, huge paint tolerance and decisiveness, as opposed to sexual submission, ineptness, distraction and an act-first-think-later aggression so often seen in female action heroines. She is incredibly resourceful, managing at one point to kill two men while her legs are in a state of paralysis, and in possession of a single-minded determination, enabling her to travel the world in search of the people on her death list. She has strong willpower and unwavering concentration, as on one occasion sits in the back of a truck for thirteen hours wiggling her limbs into mobility one toenail at a time. Tarantino did not flinch in showing her muddy and bloody and dirty, stripped of make-up, but with her character fleshed out so, The Bride remains a thing to behold. 

The cast features a powerhouse of physically formidable female leads in the form of the 3 Deadly Vipers: Vernita Green  (Vivica A. Fox),  O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), and Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah). There is an abundance of female side-characters as well:  O-Ren’s  bodyguard, Gogo, is female, as is her lawyer and best friend, Sofie Fatale (Julie Dreyfus) – all of them are forces to be reckoned with. The utter dominance of women in, of all things, an action movie was a very rare thing and should be welcomed with open arms.

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This is not to say that kickassery is measured by physical agility, although that is commendable as well. A strong woman is a strong woman, in all the outlets it will shows through. Many “feminist films” are flawed in portraying a strong woman as tough by injecting a female character with masculine traits or toughness. Kill Bill recognized that physical prowess and violence are not the only forms of strength, but that strength of character is just as significant, if not much, much more so, and this is why it triumphs as a feminist film. 

Our heroine, in herself, is a study in contrasts: invincibility with vulnerability, creating an utterly human, three-dimensional character. The tomorrow after, we see her crying and laughing in a bathroom floor, clutching a teddy bear. Is it relief of being alive after being on the edge of death for so many times? Is she weeping for her mentor/lover and father of her child, after killing him with her bare hands? The answer is not important, but seeing these questions raised in as we see our lead bare in all of her depth and complexity is a thing of beauty to behold in film which contains so much sacrilegious bloodbath.

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There isn’t a monopoly on complexity, either. The side characters are blessed with back story and motivation; they aren’t cut-out villains who are merely an excuse for a virtuoso catfight. O-Ren Ishii, for instance, started out assassinating by killing first the pedophole Yakuza who killed her mother and father. Elle Driver is a fiercely loyal agent on a perpetual quest to please Bill (David Carradine), but is a two-faced traitor with any other person she holds with less regard. Vernita Green is just a protective mother, while Gogo Yubari (who seemingly came straight out from Battle Royale) just craves to draw blood. The movie loved its female characters in all of their variety. 

The problem with film trope of a “woman on vendetta” is the seeming irrationality it portrays women, but this movie salvages this trope with reason. It isn’t about Beatrix’s dead daughter anymore, but about overcoming her past so that she may decide her future outside of Bill’s patriarchic control. In their much-awaited tete-a tete, Beatrix hashes it out with Bill and asks him, “You overreacted?” and this line was genius, as it portrays the comedic absurdity of their situation, but the rigid tension remains, because the fact remains that things have to be done, and people have to be killed eventually. There are no dramatic flares, no last-minute death wishes. The Bride never loses sight of her goals, and Tarantino allows his character to get her revenge, because that’s what she deserves. 

 -A

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