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Netflix’s newest revenge flick, ‘Kate’, sets a poisoned assassin and her latest victim’s daughter against Tokyo’s criminal enterprises, embodying both the strengths and weaknesses of the revenge genre’s recent releases.
Films in which characters wreak deadly destruction upon their tormentors were especially popular in the 70s when classics such as ‘Death Wish’ and ‘Mad Max’ first hit the silver screen. Yet with some notable exceptions, like Best Picture winner ‘Gladiator’, the genre largely died down after the 1980s. The decades rolled by, and there was little in the way of personal, intimate vigilantism. But with the 2010s came a wave of vengeance, and, after the success of early outliers such as Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill’ duology and Wes Craven’s classic ‘The Last House on the Left’, the genre found another protagonist: the wronged woman.
Kate, the new film’s eponymous assassin, is the latest in a list of women taking their revenge, following in the footsteps of iconic heroes like Charlize Theron’s characters Furiosa and Lorraine Broughton. In fact, ‘Kate’ seems to embody the trend in both its strengths and weaknesses, offering viewers an empowered heroine and highlighting the exploitation of women and cultures in Hollywood, whilst labouring under the presence of more problematic elements. Unlike Emerald Fennell’s 2021 Best Picture nominee ‘Promising Young Woman’, ‘Kate’ suffers from being written and directed exclusively by men, a dynamic that is all too prevalent in media for allegedly providing strong female characters.
Indeed, the film suffers from the detachment between its creators and those it speaks for, rendering good ideas obsolete through poor execution. In the opening scene, Kate kills three victims, twelve years into her career as a hired gun. This time, however, a child is present, breaking her only rule and exposing her to the tragic impact that her violence has upon innocent people. Seeing that pain makes it real, an idea overlooked by director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, a white man at the helm of a film in which women and non-white men suffer. The director himself is of the demographic who doesn’t see or experience that pain, yet he dictates the movements and voices of those who do.
This is evident in the ideal ‘normal’ life that Kate fantasises about, which is a typically American suburban setting despite the fact that she is based in Japan throughout the film, and seemingly for years beforehand. She spends her free time at a bar, being lonely and attractive with an uncharacteristic lack of purpose, serving as a man’s sexual conquest before strolling around in her underwear, giving the audience a moment of voyeuristic indulgence.
Kate also becomes stronger as she is shot, stabbed, burned, cut, poisoned, beaten, and otherwise wounded, fostering unhealthy ideas about women’s suffering. These moments present her as a man’s vision of what she should be and neglect the very culture that the film thoroughly fetishises. Given that the director, writer and producers are not Japanese, and that the writer and director are men, the points that ‘Kate’ attempts, surrounding the western abuse of cultures and the roles of women in film, feel hypocritical at best.
Admittedly, these ideas are highlighted during the third act but, by failing to investigate them in any depth, ‘Kate’ lacks conviction, never providing enough substantive criticism to negate its overreliance upon outdated genre elements. In making poor excuses for its music, the film never commits to cultural appropriation, so Kijima’s criticisms never hold any weight; we have not fully gorged on Japanese culture, so we do not feel targeted by his denunciation of western ignorance.
Similarly, the repeated theme of family could easily apply to women in film, the workplace, or the home. ‘Kate’ should have original ideas on motherhood and gender roles but is shallow in its discussions on both. Furthermore, the pivotal character, Ani’s existence between families goes unexplored, forcing viewers to work to understand that Kate is not just a mother figure, but the first affirmation of Ani’s ambiguous cultural identity. Each of these concepts are underutilised, highlighting the need for greater inclusion of the cultures and genders in question throughout the creative process.
The only interesting idea that the film comprehensively analyses is the parallel between Varrick’s assassins and women in Hollywood. Both are used, having their normal lives irretrievably stolen, before being abandoned upon gaining the slightest maturity, paving the way for a new young woman to take their place. It’s arguably where Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays Kate, finds herself on the precipice of being typecast as an ageing mother, rather than as desirable, or more importantly, a functioning member of society.
However, even this examination is cut short and replaced by an average finale that provides nothing unique. If ‘Kate’ presented developed ideas or overt criticisms of its viewers, I might feel as though it made interesting points that provided genuine substance. As things are, it seems sanctimoniously critical of the very exploitation upon which its first two acts depend.
Where the film excels is in its neon aesthetic, with the nighttime scenes in Tokyo referencing cyberpunk classics like ‘Blade Runner’, which clearly influences both the skyline and soundtrack before the second assassination; Nicolas-Troyan’s prior visual effects evidently facilitate the style that oozes through every second of ‘Kate’. Winstead, Woody Harrelson and Jun Kunimura also live up to their reputations, whilst Miku Martineau delivers a strong performance that provides authority to those ideas that the film does attempt to express.
The fights are certainly a spectacle, drawing from ‘The Raid’ and its sequel, although never achieving the unrivalled excitement of Iko Uwais’ breakout films. It also telegraphs its ideas ahead of time, negating their effects, for instance expecting us to believe that Kate would struggle against her weakest opponent simply so that Ani could evolve into her successor.
Overall, the film’s strengths and weaknesses balance out into general mediocrity. The most interesting thing about ‘Kate’ is how it exemplifies the problem of exploitation in revenge films, lying between decent analysis and harmful tropes. It may be a step towards empowering women in cinema, but being laden with hypocrisy, it feels almost like ‘Blazing Saddles’: a great progression for its time, but problematic and less astute decades later.