2 · Kill Bill Vol. 2

I thought long and hard about where this movie would sit in my top ten, bumping it up rung after rung every time I did. It’s a combined ranking, really, for Vols. 1 & 2, which together make up Tarantino’s finest hour.

I’ve seen plenty of people disagree; people who liked his earlier movies, even, but couldn’t stomach the violence in Volume One, or the dialogue in Volume Two, and couldn’t see the point in either. There’s enough film-student analysis of Tarantino and Kill Bill floating around the web for me not to want to add to it; but what intrigues me is why I was able to stomach this—not only stomach it, but be left impressed by it.

It’s violence as pornography, some would say: Tarantino admirers are just blood junkies, getting a quasi-erotic thrill out of stylized gore. But I don’t get any thrill out of real violence; I haven’t hit anyone since I was a kid, and the times I’ve been witness to violence as an adult have been anything but entertaining. And that’s just fists—nothing as gory as samurai swords.

Other films with less gore and a far lower body count have left me more disturbed, simply by seeming more real. Last year’s City of God was one; well of course, you might say—that was about gangsters, just like Tarantino’s movies. But even worse was The Magdalene Sisters, and that was about nuns. I can’t think of a movie that left me more tense than that, and no-one got shot or beheaded.

Kill Bill has been criticized as being too stylized, too much about “surface over substance”; but in violent movies, stylization matters. Without it, the realism of the situation, our awareness of the actual repercussions of what we’re seeing, triggers our own personal fears and aversions; the more real the on-screen violence and the accompanying sense of menace, the more the movie becomes about violence. (Even The Magdalene Sisters, which was about systematized psychological violence.)

In stylized form, movie violence becomes a means to different ends. A movie can be violent but be about something other than violence: justice, injustice, nationalistic fervour, fear of technology; Kill Bill is, of course, about revenge. In its highly stylized first instalment, we never really see why the Bride is so bent on revenge: all we see is the insanely high body-count that results. But the sense of menace created by the first carries into the second, so that when we get the back-story and the final instalments our awareness of the stakes has been heightened far more than it otherwise would have been. We couldn’t have got there without the surface sheen of bright ’70s colours, obscure but hip music, and countless references to other films and genres: a realistic depiction of senseless slaughter would have made part two impossible to watch. (For some people, even a stylized depiction of slaughter is too much; and fair enough. It’s not for everyone.) The irony is that the body count in Vol. 2 is minimal; here it would be a distraction.

Prior to Kill Bill, my favourite Tarantino moment was when Uma Thurman bolts upright after being punched in the chest with an adrenaline needle in Pulp Fiction. Watching Kill Bill is like being Uma at that moment: it hurts, it’s not pretty, but dammit, you’re alive. How many movies deliver that?

Kill Bill owes a lot to (or steals a lot from) Asian cinema, and 2004 saw some excellent Asian movies reaching the UK. The Korean revenge drama Old Boy packs some of the impact of Kill Bill into half the length, with several unforgettable scenes, even if my memory of it will forever be associated with a guy in the audience. Infernal Affairs was an excellent undercover cop story from Hong Kong, although I can’t vouch for the prequel, which I never got around to seeing. A world away from the violence and frenetic pace of these was the haunting Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring, charting the cycles of life and death of a Korean monk and his apprentice in a remote valley. I’d recommend all of them, and I’m hoping that China’s House of Flying Daggers will cap them off.