This fall left us with a few rules for the simple life. One: If the Pussy Wagon shows up in your driveway, do not answer the door. Two: If you pimp out a coma victim, make sure she’s unconscious. And three: If there ’s one thing you don’t want to call a Deadly Viper, it’s “half-bre e d.” Call her a bitch, call her a whore, criticize her choice of kitchen tile, but do not question her pedigree.
This last, most important lesson comes in one of the stranger bits of violence in Kill Bill Vol. 1, right after Lucy Liu’s newly minted yakuza overboss O-Ren Ishii gives a board room speech that uses beheading as visual aid. The action itself is stock mob flick—the new boss’s inaugurating brutality—but the gag, the Tarantino flourish, is, despite advance promises of a “pure action film,” actually a violence of language. Beginning in a mode of perky, female-executive persuasion (“As your leader, I encourage you f rom time to time, and always in a respectful manner, to question my logic”), Liu’s Chinese-Japanese-American soon crescendos into that same register of female rage with which Amanda Plummer kicked off Pulp Fiction. ( Tellingly, both speeches make it onto their respective soundtrack CDs.) In a country where a woman’s speech is literally incomprehensible unless delivered in high pitch, this new boss lady lays it out low, loud, and—adding insult to decapitation— in English. Thus does that voguish new archetype of ass-kicking female “empowerment,” the Charlie’s Angel, become something much more interesting: an ugly American. A bullying, custom-trampling, unapologetic cultural imperialist. Bring up her provenance as a negative and she collects your fucking head, like one more Oriental tchotchke.
O-Ren Ishii is, in a sense, Tarantino himself: another violent, defensive, crazy, brilliant, mixed-up American kid. Clearly, of Tarantino’s many and varied passions, purity is low on the list. In fact, miscegenation—racial, cultural, musical, arterial—is not only an enduring theme of his (explored in the romance of Jackie Brown, evoked in the mafioso race-baiting in True Romance) but a structural and methodological linchpin. When he talks about his genre pictures — his “crime” movie Reservoir Dogs or his “exploitation” script From Dusk Till Dawn— i t ’s hard to know exactly what Tarantino means. And when he calls Kill Bill “action cinema boiled down to its most flaming arrow” there seems to be some kind of semantic feint going on. Not only is the idea of a “pure” Western or gangster film pretty untenable nowadays, but Tarantino is amongst cinema’s most noted hybridists.
No other acclaimed director has been as chided for eclectic, cross-referential, multi-genre cross breeding as this former video-store whiz kid, who—to paraphrase an old crack on Orwell — can’t blow his nose without referencing Truffaut. Kill Bill may not be talky, but it sure isn’t distilled. In fact, it’s more like a 110-minute in-your-face rebuttal to critics of cinematic bastards like Tarantino. A long-awaited, carefully plotted, globe-tro tting act of vengeance—best served cold. If Kill Bill is an ode to “hybrid vigor,” the idea that a mixed breed is more rather than less robust, it’s also a mythic meditation on the condition of transnational postmodernity. In other words, it’s a Wu-Tang album. Hip-hop mastermind R Z Ais thus more a spiritual and creative consultant than just music director. The defining works in Tarantinia — Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction — use no soundtrack other than carefully chosen pop songs, which are tremendously effective in creating his alternative cinematic universe. The sonic profile is easily recognizable: tremolo guitar twang, blaring brass vibrato, rockabilly shuffle, Seventies funk, camp diva, and creepy-funny novelty tune. But something needed to happen to retool this aesthetic for an epic action movie, to ignite movement and resonate with the story ’s themes. RZA did it, by pureeing this mix-tape into a flowing, border-erasing extended dance remix with samplers and turntables—state-of-the-art tools for felicitous corruption.
Purity is a near synonym for innocence, and in Kill Bill, the defiling of innocence often reads less like tragedy and more like pragmatism. The movie is packed with sight gags upending conventional images of purity: Uma Thurman’s pregnant bride, Chiaki Kuriyama’s homicidal schoolgirl. Even the anime version of young O-Ren Ishii, as she witnesses her parents’ murder, seems incorruptible because already corrupt—her blank, limpid Hello Kitty eyes don’t really register the event with any recognizable human emotion. And the awesome open-ing setpiece, in the suburban idyll of Vivica A. Fox’s Vernita Green, satirizes domestic TV Americana, carefully leading up to the trumping violation of yet another innocent, Vernita’s daughter.
As they square off before the picture window—in one of those frozen John Woo tableaux of murderous interruptus—the fight reveals itself to be an overture for the arrival of a school bus and the pigtailed moppet’s gambol up the path. “This is an old friend of Mommy’s,” Vernita says, blood dripping down her shirt. This kid knows better. Something is already profoundly fucked up about the scene, in a way that makes the impending murder and defilement almost a fait accompli. Just as O-Ren Ishii is already dead when we meet her—her name crossed off the Bride’s “to kill” list long before—so has some basic standard of Hollywood storytelling been murdered before we even got here.
“It’s mercy, compassion, and forgiveness I lack, not rationality,” the Bride crisply enunciates to her foe, who later sneers, “I shoulda been motherfuckin’ Black Mamba.” The mix of stilted samurai dialogue and blaxploitation ebonics i s n ’t just funny, it’s fundamentally unsettling and, like the women’s pained grunts and the sharp bits of broken glass, part of a larger subversion. A “pure action film” is a thrilling but comforting experience, as one settles into the expected conventions of the genre. That’s not Kill Bill. This film isn’t simply referential — a collection of jump cuts from genre to genre—but a true and disorienting fusion.
The most meaningful transgressions reveal taboos by violating them. Rules are broken or inverted so quickly and so often here that it’s impossible to get a footing, and many of the transgressions are against some quite current social mores. Tarantino throws around Asian film and TV stereotypes with such abandon—the Kato masks of the Crazy 88, the “Flight of the Bumble Bee” Green Hornet theme, the Charlie Chan aside of Michael Parks’s Texas sheriff—that it’s possible Kill Bill will provoke grumblings similar to those prompted by his earlier use of the n-word. Only a nimrod would take his intention as anything but reference and homage, but these references are also part of a painful tradition he has neither personal experience of nor—some would say—proprietary rights to. And that may be part of the point.
Tarantino bristled when an interviewer called Kill Bill “self-protected” and his “most impersonal movie.” He insisted that the film revealed a great deal about him. “All that stuff isn’t on the surface of this movie,” he said. “It’s buried inside of it.” But in this installment, it’s hard to see what’s inside the movie besides its themes and building blocks. The characters’ humanity is largely crowded out by the flash, crash, choreography, and blood. But as that Tarantino apologist Cocteau once said, “Style is a way of saying complicated things.”
“Silly Caucasian girl, likes to play with samurai swords,” O-Ren chides the wounded Bride, poking at their common vulnerability, the fear of being seen as half-breeds, wannabes, cultural voyeurs. As in Pulp Fiction, the world of Kill Bill places a huge value on reverse crossover success, on mastering the Other’s tongue, moves, style. When she pokes her way into the sushi-bar store front of Sonny Chiba’s master sword-maker, the Bride feigns collegiate, dumb-blonde gaijinism, before revealing her Deadly Viper power in speech, not action—by speaking the language like a native. When people derided Paul Simon’s Graceland album for its cultural appropriation of indigenous African music, Simon responded, “What am I supposed to play, the music of Queens?” This sounds familiar. Although no one’s ever questioned Tarantino ’s mastery of his chosen tongue, cinema, he has also had a fraught, self-aware relationship with black culture, among other Others. It’s little surprise to find out that Tarantino was the first choice to direct Eminem in 8 Mile.
O-Ren takes back her insult when the Bride rises from the bloody snow and scores a body hit. And then, at last, the Bride lands a mortal wound, dispatching the beautiful mongrel to the hereafter. The wound—a scalping—doesn’t come from yakuza films or Hong Kong wu xia, but the Western, which has its own tradition of miscegenation and revenge. It goes all the way back to The Searchers, with its racial paranoia and betrayal, and arguably even to the proto-Tarantino Last of the Mohicans, where that seminal North American culture clash yields a “flow of blood [that] might be likened to the outbreaking of a torrent,” as “many among them even kneeled to the earth, and drank freely, exultingly, hellishly, of the crimson tide.”
American innocence and Japanese purity are two surprisingly, discomfitingly enduring myths, and it’s not the worst thing to see both so pointedly and repeatedly eviscerated. The real cliffhanger is what happens after the violation, whether Vol. 2 finds uplift in the fact that defilement often means birth. (If there ’s one thing Bill’s really messing with, it’s a woman’s right to choose.) Until then, we’re left with one nearly exquisite corpse. On the soundtrack, RZA dedicates his rap song to O-Ren, who he calls “half Chinese, half Japanese,” and “half American.” This may be Wu-Tang math in full effect, but it’s not wrong. This Japanese steel is stronger for the smelting. And for all the pain of birth—and this film sure doesn’t make that look easy—this new whole is more, not less, than the sum of its parts .
© 2003 by Chris Norris