When Quentin Tarantino burst onto the Hollywood scene with glowing reviews and accolades for his Sundance Film Festival award-winning RESERVOIR DOGS in 1992, he also created a sizable amount of detractors who claimed that he was ripping off the obscure Hong Kong thriller CITY ON FIRE. To his credit, though, Tarantino has never denied the importance and influence of Hong Kong film on his career, particularly his love for all the old Shaw Brothers classic kung fu films. And what better way to parlay his defiance of those who say what he already knows, than to blatantly and openly admit that his latest film KILL BILL is -- pure and simple -- an homage to Hong Kong's old kung fu cinema.
"Anyone who truly knows me, knows that I'm a major fan of all those old kung fu films," Tarantino admits, "especially many of the Shaw Brothers films. That's why it was important for me to try and film a particular sequence at the old Shaw Brothers' movie lot in Hong Kong. It's what I called the Bai Mei sequence at that temple that had all the stairs, before Wang Yu and Chen Kuan-tai in EXECUTIONER FROM SHAOLIN (1978) and Gordon Liu in CLAN OF THE WHITE LOTUS (1980) climbed up those stairs to fight Bai Mai, who was of course played by the penultimate villain actor Lo Lieh. In fact, I was hoping to get Lo to play Bai Mei in KILL BILL, but he was sick at the time and then of course later on I was saddened to hear that he passed away.
"So anyway, when I visited the Shaw Brothers lot, which is now used mostly for TV, it was a bit too small for our purposes, so we ended up shooting the scenes at the Beijing Film Studio where we basically owned this place for about four months. But what I think you'll find really cool is when I was at the Shaws lot, I visited Run Run Shaw's private screening room and sat in his private chair. I could feel that energy and imagine all the great things he saw sitting there. That was a dream come true."
While humming the familiar, haunting trumpet melody heard amidst a drum roll before the beginning of every great Shaw Brothers film, Tarantino excitedly announces that although he didn't get to shoot on the Shaw's lot, he received permission to use the Shaw Brothers' logo, "Filmed in Shawscope," at the beginning of KILL BILL.
Released on October 10th, 2003 (which, incidently, coincides with the same day back in 1911 when the revolution against the Ching dynasty started at Wu Cheng, a key city on the Yangtze river), it's really just the first premiere. As most of you might know by now, KILL BILL has been split into two volumes,. But based on Miramax's track record for their Hong Kong film releases THE TOUCH,HERO, SHAOLIN SOCCER and WARRIORS FROM MAGIC MOUNTAIN 2, don't hold your breath.
Bottom line though, KILL BILL is a bargain for Miramax's Harvey Weinstein: two 90-minute films that star the likes of Uma Thurman (The Bride), Lucy Liu (O-Ren Ishi), Daryl Hannah (Elle Driver), Vivica Fox (Vernita Green), David Carradine (Bill), Samuel L. Jackson (The Piano Player), Michael Madsen (Bud), Sonny Chiba (Hattori Hanzo), Gordon Liu and fight choreography by Yuen Woo-ping and was shot in 51 weeks in China, Mexico, the Californian deserts, Los Angeles County and Tokyo, for the low, low, nominal fee of just $53 million.
How did the film come about? Tarantino enthusiastically shares, "While I was shooting PULP FICTION with Uma, we had such a great time and wanted to work together again and I came up with this idea of doing a revenge movie with Uma in it and she'd be shot in the head like in a spaghetti western where the bandittos take out the whole family and think everyone is dead, but the hero isn't.
"So this happens at their wedding, and where KILL BILL comes from, because Bill and his "bandittos" shoot her in the head, and kill everybody else at her wedding. So she wakes up four years later and she was pregnant when she was attacked, so the baby is lost. She finds out her lover and old compadres did it and now she's going to track them all down one by one and kill them all, leaving Bill for last. But it's been four years later, everyone is off doing different things, in different places, lives have changed, none of that means shit to the bride. They are all going to pay and pay dearly. She goes down the list one by one leaving Bill for last. So that's why it doesn't leave you at a cliff hanger at the end of volume one because you pretty much know she going to kill the first four and get to Bill. We only know her as THE BRIDE in the film and we only find out her real name in the movie towards the very end."
While speaking with Tarantino, it's obvious he has a passion for these martial arts films, and many interviews and stories published about him reflect that; but no one has ever asked what to me is the obvious question. Has he ever practiced or thought about practicing martial arts?
"Not many people ask me that one," he surprisingly quips, "but no, I haven't. I've done probably what everyone who loves those movies does after the films, you know go around throwing kicks, punches and screams, but never practiced martial arts. But it's also funny that you ask me that because in preparation for the film, Woo-ping kept telling me that I should play Bai Mei, saying that I could do a great voice impersonation of him, so I should think about being him. The idea fascinated me.
"So while all the girls were training for the film (Liu, Thurman, Fox and Hannah), Woo-ping had me train right alongside with them doing all the fight scenes for over three months, five days a week, eight hours a day, monday through friday, and then I'd get together with the fight teams on Saturdays and choreograph the fight scenes together. And what's cool is that all the girls were learning different stuff. But Uma had all the difficult stuff, because she had to learn everything, because not only did we have Woo-ping and the fight team teaching the actors how to do wushu-style movie martial arts, but we also had Sonny Chiba doing the same training, training Lucy and Uma how to do samurai fighting and explaining the whole concept of the samurai, the dos and don'ts and the whys and wherefores, and all that."
Filmmakers say that when they're paying respects to a film or filmmaker they admire, they're giving them a "nod." So that being the case, Tarantino's head with KILL BILL is in perpetual motion like one of those bobbing head dolls.
First and foremost, Thurman is romping around in Bruce Lee's one-piece yellow tracksuit from GAME OF DEATH. Hannah's hair and eyepatch is reminiscent of the Silver Fox character in Yuen Kuei's eyepopping film SAVIOR OF SOULS, and Lui's Japanese samurai warrior role of O-Ren Ishi (her backstory described in a nine-minute Japanese anime sequence) looks like a cross between Etsuko Sue Shiomi and Yukari Oshima. Apart from dressing like a Japanese schoolgirl and flailing a meteor ball in the film (a rarity in U.S. martial arts films), Fox's big duel with The Bride was inspired by a slew of Shaw Brothers films: the killing scene of 100 swordsmen by Jimmy Wang Yu in GOLDEN SWALLOW (1967) and the "slice em, dice em" human vegematic fray from David Chiang and Ti Lung's DUEL OF THE IRON FISTS (1969).
Sonny Chiba plays Hattori Hanzo, a role he made famous in the old Japanese TV show SHADOW WARRIORS. Gordon Liu appears in two roles, first as a member of O-Ren Ishi's army the Crazy 88s, who skulk around wearing black masks similar to Bruce Lee's Kato in THE GREEN HORNET, then as Monk Bai Mei, who must teach The Bride the ways of Chinese kung fu. Tarantino even uses the haunting, pounding music used every time the Master shows up in MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976). And whenever there was an action sequence with an an over-head shot, it was called their "Chang Cheh POV shot," coined in honor of the recently deceased martial arts film director Chang Cheh, known for a slew of great films such as the ground-breaking ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN (1966), the epic THE WATER MARGIN (1973) and the cult favorite FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978).
"Oh yes, these of course are all done on purpose," Tarantino gleefully explains. "I think, though, that Uma looks a wee bit more flattering in the Bruce Lee tracksuit. I thought that it would add to her character, especially after she had to go through all the kung fu training. The idea of watching her do all her stuff with her long arms, long body, long legs, and long blond hair, in that yellow jump suit, makes her quite striking.
"But with Vivica and Daryl, they don't do that much in the film; they all started at a certain point. They all had their own specialty. Daryl got fantastic with the samurai sword and becomes a knife expert. Lucy didn't have any kung fu stuff to do, just had her samurai fight, and Uma had the most to do."
With all the steel slashing mayhem and pugilistic pounding going on, does this film have a message or theme? Tarantino titters, "Not really any sort of message in the film; its just basically and simply a revenge movie, and the whole idea of the film is really to weave in spaghetti westerns, Japanese samurai and yakuza movies, and kung fu films where most of them all have stories about revenge. What's also neat is that the women are all members of the female hit team the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Uma is Black Mamba, Vivica is Copperhead, Lucy Liu is Cotton Mouth and Daryl is Californian Mountain Snake. I thought snakes names were cool. Bill is then the Snake Charmer, his code name, and has charmed all those vipers into working for him."
When I ask Tarantino why did he cast Fox and Hannah (actresses not known for action) and then note that the casting of the female assassins seems to cover all the major races -- which appears to be very PC of him -- he replies, "It wasn't done for necessarily that purpose; it just works out that way. Vivica is just the best actress for this film. For Daryl, I actually ended up writing it for her because the character she plays is Uma's opposite number, the one that Uma hates the most; they can't stand each other, Elle Driver.
"When I was writing it, I wanted to make it a very specific blonde hair color for Uma, and that Vivica was black and making that specific, and I wanted Elle Driver to be specific for who she exactly was. And when I was trying to begin to figure out who I would cast, I could start making someone different from Uma so we can have a good time bouncing off of that. And then I saw Daryl in a TV movie she did, FIRST TARGET, the head of the secret service, and she was good at it. And then it hit me: instead of trying to find somebody different from Uma, make it somebody who is the same. Same height, same blonde hair, but still different. Uma is like Venus and Daryl is like Barbie, and put them together and have them do this knock-down, drag-out bitch fight. So it was like a Godzilla movie with the tag line 'Uma Thurman verses Daryl Hannah: Who will win.'"
Tarantino closes by sharing, "So you can see that these films have a very special place in my heart, and I feel privileged to be privy to what's out there and know these old films. To me, I am compelled to create a film that has some of the greatest action ever. Or why even bother to put it on the screen? There's a lot of repetitive stuff out there, and the audience will lose interest, so as a director, with KILL BILL, I feel like I must raise the bar."
By Craig Reed contributor
And indeed he did!
10 Minutes of Tarratino Heaven and Hell
And something from the soundtrack!