Before Kill Bill: Volume 1’s release, audiences were already acquainted with Quentin Tarantino’s interests in extreme violence and casual drug use. But once it hit cinemas, Kill Bill proved to be a baptism of fire, which introduced us to an unapologetically more bloodthirsty, excitable Tarantino. Here was a man who gleefully spilled 450 gallons of fake blood over the course of filming Kill Bill: Vol 1 and its sequel, Volume 2; one that would happily see hundreds executed, so that one of a small handful of main antagonists could die. That figure will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the films, because whatever was lacking in Vernita Green’s (Vivica A. Fox) backstory (think about it – we still know almost nothing about her) was made up for in gushing wounds and amputations. Kill Bill was as much a threat as it was a treat, showing audiences what the director was truly capable of.
Volume 1 follows Beatrix “The Bride” Kiddo (Uma Thurman) on her calculated, ambitious quest for revenge. Tarantino is notoriously fearless with dark subject matter, and so blood and gore were to be expected. What makes the Kill Bill films different from the director’s previous, ensemble-heavy work, however, is its focus on one clear protagonist – more so than even Jackie Brown. In terms of the action, the fact that this protagonist is a woman is neither here nor there; in fact, Tarantino and Thurman worked collaboratively to produce and develop the film, which explains a lot of the Bride’s characterisation. In Kill Bill, the filmmaker marries the spaghetti western with a Japanese thriller, combining highly stylised fight sequences with bitter, clever, drawling dialogue. Tarantino has previously cited Battle Royale as one of his all-time favourite films, a fact that sheds a lot of light on some of the influences behind Kill Bill.
2000’s Battle Royale focusses on a not-too-distant dystopian future, wherein school children are forced to take part in a competition for survival. With close to a 50/50 gender divide, the film’s female characters as ferocious and violent as any of their male counterparts. It is this aspect of the cult classic on which Tarantino hones in, making it perfectly clear from the start to the finish of his two-part epic that women can be just as psychotic, deadly, unpredictable and vengeful as any man – if not more so.
Tarantino’s casting of Japanese actress Chiaki Kuriyama (who also appeared in Battle Royale) adds to this. She plays the unhinged, beautiful Gogo Yubari to perfection, challenging both the audience and Kiddo herself to try and talk sense into her, without luck of course.
Tarantino has form with films led by empowered women, with Pam Grier a prime example in the title role of Jackie Brown. The character is, like Kiddo, fierce, driven and intelligent; but where Jackie is collected and manipulative, Beatrix Kiddo is troubled and violent. Her unpredictability is a crucial aspect of her character, and something rare indeed for a ruthless, leading woman. There are no shopping montages or love scenes, and not all that much attention given to what Beatrix Kiddo is wearing – though her iconic Bruce Lee-homaging yellow tracksuit can’t help but lodge in the memory. The film’s focus lies in the motive for her quest for vengeance, and ultimately her motive is simple enough: she was wronged. Regardless of gender or economic status, or even the specifics of Kiddo’s backstory, that’s something everyone can understand.
The concept is simple and universal, and the characters are twisted and interesting, making them a gift to any actor, but particularly women. It was while working together on 1994’s Pulp Fiction (on another strong woman) that Tarantino and Thurman conceived the idea for Kill Bill, with Uma Thurman’s newborn baby playing an important part in the construction of the storyline (according to both director and star).
Though Thurman leads the proceedings, Lucy Liu is equally chilling and charming as the Yakuza boss (and item on the Bride’s list) O-ren Ishii. A beautifully-crafted anime flashback, directed separately by Kazuto Nakazawa, gifts the audience with O-ren’s origin story, immediately providing the character with more depth than your average power-hungry baddy. The tenacity and authority of Liu’s O-ren goes without question and the character’s cool, calm demeanour sets her apart from the loud, boisterous crew she rules.
The status of these strong female characters was put in doubt recently after Thurman revealed a painful on-set story from the shoot. Tarantino asked her to perform a dangerous driving stunt herself despite worries over the vintage car’s safety, putting her in an uncomfortable position; while filming the scene, she crashed and was badly injured. Many have questioned the director’s decision and pointed out that to put your leading lady in that position is reckless, irresponsible and even troublingly coercive. But while Tarantino’s dangerous direction complicates how we view the Kill Bill films, we mustn’t reduce Uma Thurman to the role of victim – as opposed to an award-winning actress with a career that spans decades, who played the lead role in a successful film franchise that she herself had a hand in creating. It would be a shame to let the incident tarnish a strong, fearless female role, among the others Tarantino has created before, and since. If we want strong women onscreen we have to let them take the necessary risks offscreen too.
Kill Bill is not just a film about women. It is a film about vengeance, patience, hate and love, mixed with a healthy dose of beautifully choreographed fighting and brilliantly-acted villains. Regardless of how women or minorities are seen in film now, or how cinema is likely to progress in the future, Kill Bill remains a classic, with an empowering message for all women.