- Circuitous Action:Revenge Cinema
Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 1 and 2 (2003 and 2004) stands out as an extreme exercise in genre pastiche, even considered within the filmography of a director commonly described as the postmodern pop auteur par excellence. The “future of allusion” once named by Noël Carroll as a signpost of postclassical American cinema—with its penchant for homage, citation, and cannibalizations of the past—comes to a head in Tarantino’s manic referentiality, his self-conscious forging of a directorial style from an intertextual network that extends downwards into the trash bin of film history, as well as outwards beyond the territorial borders of Hollywood.1 A grand collage of the director’s particular movie obsessions, Kill Bill exposes those cult affinities that inform Umberto Eco’s definition of the “postmodern” movie, “where the quotation of the topos is recognized as the only way to cope with the burden of our encyclopedical filmic competence.”2 What makes this work hyperbolic even by the standards of an audience well habituated to the production of meaning by allusion is the idiosyncratic contour of its topos, running to Chinese martial arts films, historical swordplay and gangster films from Japan, Italian and American westerns, and horror. Kill Bill’s cult affinities are of a global order. We are confronted here with not only the burden of a collective cultural memory, but a challenge of translation, of navigating across multiple lexica and regional traditions, of treading an uneven textual surface that spans disparate geographies.
The film’s sprawling field of reference is held together by a simple story line: a woman, introduced simply as “the Bride,” awakens from a coma after a vicious assault on her life on her wedding day and, one by one, hunts down and kills her five attackers. A shocking act of violence sets the plot in motion and initiates a series of violent counteractions. The stacked odds of the initial confrontation, where we see the lone victim outnumbered by her assailants, become the seed of an amplification and [End Page 47] escalation of narrative actions. Underlying the spectacular death scenes that many critics denounce in the film is the hyperliteral algorithm of vengeance wherein injury requites injury in kind. In revenge stories like Kill Bill, not only does violence beget more violence, as the saying goes, but does so according to a strictly predetermined logic as a reaction to and reinscription of an initial cause, every turn of events a return to a founding event of violence. The vendetta in its formal contours thus entails, in the words of John Kerrigan, “an eye-for-eye attentiveness to lucid causal relations.”3 To view the narrative operations of revenge in such terms—as what Kerrigan calls an “impulse towards structure”—is not to deny the excess bred of its compulsion towards reprisal. Kill Bill aptly demonstrates the tension between the linear drive to rectify order and the cyclical endlessness both imbedded in the concept of vengeance, its protagonist’s single-minded purposefulness finding expression in a mind-blowing frenzy of killing.4
If revenge is the red thread linking the film’s disjointed episodes and stylistic vagaries, it also weaves throughout the generic tapestry into which the film inserts itself. Tales of vengeance are the backbone of the western, and several of that genre’s most memorable treatments of the theme—The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956), Death Rides a Horse (dir. Giulio Petroni, 1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (dir. Sergio Leone, 1968)—leave visible and audible traces in Kill Bill. Revenge also features prominently in the Japanese historical costume drama, or jidaigeki, particularly in the samurai swordplay pictures from which the film borrows both its main object signifier, the sword, and the mode of that object’s animation, the swordfight spectacle. A standard story template of the jidaigeki, in which a swordsman or swordswoman must set their skills to the test of avenging the wrongful death of a master or family member, appears with equal frequency in the Chinese martial arts swordplay genre, or wuxia pian. Kill Bill pays explicit homage to the wuxia pian in its opening frames...