The Great Scenes: “Showdown with O-Ren Ishii” from KILL BILL, VOLUME I
The Movie: Kill Bill, Volume I
Spoiler Level: High
The Setup: The Bride (Uma Thurman) is hell-bent on a mission to kill the five assassins who ruined her life and nearly killed her and after acquiring a samurai sword from the legendary sword maker Hattori Hanso, The Bride sets off to take out perhaps her most powerful enemy, Japanese-Chinese-American gang leader O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu). In an astonishingly and perhaps unprecedentedly violent sequence (perhaps the subject of another Great Scenes post one day), we have just watched The Bride hack her way through 88 members of O-Ren’s gang and with the remaining survivors screaming in pain in the background, The Bride makes her way onto O-Ren’s rooftop garden for a final showdown.
Why It’s Great: Like so much of Kill Bill, the showdown with O-Ren is a scene that both works in perfect harmony with the rest of the film and stands alone and apart from everything else that comes before and after it. Tarantino is almost taking us through a door into another movie when The Bride slides back the doorway to reveal the snow-covered gardens on the roof of the House of Blue Leaves (indeed the visual effect very much makes it appear as though she is walking into a movie screen).
At the 1:46 mark, Santa Esmerelda’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” takes over on the soundtrack, a curious musical choice considering that in its entirety, it’s a rather cheesy, Latin-tinted disco-pop hit. Tarantino though is able to see through the context of the song itself and pick out the admittedly dramatic instrumental break in the middle of the song and turn it into the perfect musical accompaniment to his Sergio Leone-esque moment of dramatic tension that serves as the climax of Volume I (and some would say, the climax of the entire two-part story).
The posturing and tension-building continues in almost unbearable fashion and at the 2:56 mark, a quick slash from The Bride hacks off a piece of O-Ren’s sheath and as the horn section fades in on the soundtrack, the look of terror crawls across O-Ren’s face as she realizes for the first time that she may not win this fight. It’s not until almost a minute later that the tension is finally broken and while the rest of the scene is far less about stylized tension and more about resolution and payoff, I believe that solid minute of anticipation is perhaps the high point of Quentin Tarantino’s career as a filmmaker. It’s a representation of everything he’s about as a filmmaker, a post-modern mash-up of genres (kung fu, spaghetti western, exploitation) set to a soundtrack that would be entirely out of place in any of those genres and somehow it not only all works together but it manages to create a sincere, nail-biting moment of emotional tension that rivals even those great showdown scenes that came before it (like the end of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” discussed earlier here on The Great Scenes).
I’d also be remiss not to mention the performances of Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman, who are both the unquestionable stars of the entire Kill Bill saga (As a villain, David Carradine’s Bill doesn’t hold a candle to O-Ren). They both do a nice bit of acting in this scene that has a lot of emotion going on without a lot of words being spoken to spell it all out for us. These women were both friends and perhaps still feel a little of that friendship towards one another. At the same time, there is no denying the situation they are in. The Bride is there to kill O-Ren or die trying. Despite the fact that she has already dispatched with the first name on her “Death List”, there’s a real sense that in this epic tale of revenge, O-Ren is the first and biggest step on the road to vengeance for The Bride. Unlike the other foes we meet in Volume II, O-Ren is given a rich backstory and is shown as not just a pesky villain to be eliminated but a worthy anti-heroine in her own right. The meeting of these two characters couldn’t be preceded with any more anticipation and although the ending is satisfying, the anticipation is the real star of the show here.