Blood Sport

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The massacre is well underway at the House of Blue Leaves. The swank Tokyo nightclub's spacious dance floor — a sheet of glass that floats above an immaculate Zen rock garden — is strewn with the bodies of dismembered yak-uza. A willowy blonde with wild eyes, clad in a blood-smeared yellow tracksuit, brandishes her Samurai sword, preparing to dispatch three more victims. She grits her teeth. The yakuza scowl back. As sword meets flesh and the three villains slam backwards through a wooden lattice, the mastermind behind the mayhem can't suppress a smile. "Pow!" exults an elated Quentin Tarantino, bounding from his perch beside the camera to congratulate Uma Thurman, the killer blonde, on a beautifully executed fight scene. "Very, very cool."

So begins the 32nd day of shooting at the Beijing Film Studio in China, where Tarantino is adding to his résumé as a writer, director and profligate spiller of fake blood. His latest project, Kill Bill, a revenge tale whose body count is belied by its simple title, is the 39-year-old American filmmaker's homage to the fight flicks that sparked his lifelong obsession with Asian cinema. The film, due out in the fall of 2003, is something of a departure for the upstart auteur, who is back on the set after a six-year break from directing. His three previous directorial projects — Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (winner of the top prize at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival) and Jackie Brown — depicted quintessentially American underworlds and were shot entirely in Hollywood. In Kill Bill, Tarantino wanted to evoke the style, including the nearly whimsical violence, of the "old school" Asian action movies he grew to revere during his now legendary years as a video-store clerk in Los Angeles.

To achieve this feel, virtually every element of the film, from cast to camerawork, borrows enthusiastically from combat cinema's archives. One scene will be shot in the flickery black-and-white of the Godzilla genre, another will unfold entirely in Japanese animé. Tarantino even sent his cinematographer, Oscar winner Bob Richardson (Platoon, JFK, Wall Street), lists of must-see Samurai and Shaw Brothers' classics like Five Fingers of Death and One Armed Swordsman as a pre-production crash course in the camerawork of the kick-flick canon.

Kill Bill's Asian scenes, including those set in Japan, were shot in Beijing in a studio that Mao Zedong built to produce propaganda pictures. Lounging on a bar stool on the set of the House of Blue Leaves, Tarantino admits that realizing this sequence — in which Thurman eviscerates a grand total of 76 masked stuntmen — is the biggest challenge of his directorial career. "I want it to be to kung fu fights what the Apocalypse Now 'Ride of the Valkyries' scene was to battle scenes. I set up the sequence so that either it would be the greatest thing anyone's ever seen as far as this shit's concerned, or I would hit my head on the ceiling of my talent."

Part of the challenge lies in the inherent complexity of martial arts scenes, which must be assembled from hours of carefully choreographed film snippets taken from multiple camera angles. "My movies aren't usually difficult," Tarantino explains as Uma Thurman strides by clutching her infant son and the crew wet-vacs some blood puddles to the wails of Bob Marley's I Shot the Sheriff. "They can be too easy. I write these meaty scenes and on the day, me and the actors, we eat 'em. And you feel great. You've just eaten a nourishing meal. But (shooting action) isn't a nourishing meal. You do all these little bits and you never know quite what you've got."

Tarantino has made his task all the harder because he's resolved to make Kill Bill in what he calls "the Chinese Way" — a phrase intoned with mantra-like frequency by the film's nearly 300-strong cast and crew. Digital effects are out. "That shit looks good, but it looks like a computer did it," he shrugs. "I'd rather have it look good and look like a cool '70s thing." He's tried wherever possible to replicate the devices favored by his kung fu forbears, which means using such low-tech innovations as Chinese condoms filled with fake blood. The actors pop them at the critical moment — a nod to the recently deceased Chinese director Chang Cheh, who Tarantino says invented the technique for his 1970 film Vengeance. The impassioned cinEaste in Tarantino wants every drop of blood — this scene alone will require 100 gallons of it — to authentically recall the films to which he's paying tribute. So his special effects team employs a selection of fake blood that rivals the cast and crew in its international diversity. "I'm really particular about the blood, so we're using a mixture depending on the scenes. I say, 'I don't want horror movie blood, all right? I want Samurai blood.' You can't pour this raspberry pancake syrup on a sword and have it look good. You have to have this special kind of blood that you only see in Samurai movies."

Of course, there are other, less auteurish reasons for eschewing the ways of Hollywood. For starters, the Chinese Way is the cheap way. Tarantino's longtime collaborator, the producer Lawrence Bender, is tight-lipped about the budget for Kill Bill but allows that vastly lower personnel costs and the absence of labor union restrictions mean a day of shooting in Beijing costs as little as half of what it would cost in Hollywood. Equally critical, choosing to work in China made it easier — financially and logistically — to assemble the region's finest martial artists. Yuen Wo-ping — a master known to international audiences for his wire work on recent martial arts blockbusters Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, was hired to choreograph the fight scenes, reviving material that appeared on his résumé 20 years ago. Venerable Japanese screen idol Sonny Chiba is both cast member and combat coach.

Kill Bill's plot — the fruit of a late-night chat Tarantino and Thurman had while shooting Pulp Fiction in 1993 — is intentionally standard revenge-film fare: a recently retired master assassin, The Bride (played by Thurman) is gunned down on her wedding day by Bill (David Carradine of the 1970s American TV series Kung Fu), her onetime boss and lover. She wakes up from a coma four years later and resolves to wreak vengeance by hunting down the killers in Bill's posse — a multinational Charlie's Angels-style trio called the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, played by Daryl Hannah, Lucy Liu and Vivica Fox. Eventually, one can safely assume, The Bride will eliminate Bill himself.

Dialogue is minimal. Tarantino's trademark bouts of verbal incontinence and off-color humor are reserved for the script's meticulously detailed stage directions. One scene has The Bride "goin' Krakatoa all over whoever's ass happens to be in front of her at that time." Another calls for "the most disgusting jar of Vaseline in the history of cinema." Whereas in other screenplays the words "they fight" would suffice, Tarantino devotes most of the script — which took him nearly two years to complete — to outlining the action. He lays out precise requirements, dictating which historical genres are to be evoked ("a Shaw Brothers' snap zoom ... a spaghetti western flashback") and when exactly "the squirting, spewing geysers of blood" must turn "from crimson red to oil black."

Despite these detailed prescriptive passages in his screenplay, Tarantino is almost relentlessly improvisational on the set itself. While in China, Kill Bill is shot six days a week instead of the five allowed in Hollywood. That and the varied skills of the multinational crew give him more flexibility. "It's really cool, because the Chinese way of doing action is there's not really a schedule," he says. "There's no shot list. I have certain shots in my mind that I know I want to do from like a year and a half of writing about them. But now, me and the master (Yuen), we come up with new things as we're doing it. Cool gags, funny gags, gory gags. They make movies here so cheap that you actually can do that." Says Fish Fong, Yuen's assistant: "The hardest thing for us as choreographers is having to remember all of these fighting styles we haven't used in over 20 years and trying to bring them back to life." But "Quentin's got an unbelievable eye for this stuff."

Thurman has similarly complimentary things to say. "It's unusual for someone to be willing to think on their feet this way," she gushes, "rather than to be hanging by their fingernails to their script, or to their little thing that they wrote, or to the decision that they thought was the right one yesterday in the shower." But today's biggest beneficiary of Tarantino's gift is Hu Xiaokui, a 17-year-old wushu student and the youngest of the 76 yakuza on the House of Blue Leaves set. "I was supposed to die today," he says, "but when Wuma (what the Chinese call Thurman) was about to kill me, the director saw something in my face that made him change his mind." He saw an innocent kid who provided a means of adding a sympathetic layer to The Bride's ruthless character. "I thought, 'There's no way she'd off a kid with a mug like this,'" says Tarantino, cuffing Hu on the shoulder. So he devised a new ending for the scene. Hu becomes the last man standing at the massacre's end.

Granted a moment in the spotlight, Hu beams as if his life has actually been spared. As for Tarantino, he's clearly having a ball. When the movie is released, audiences might not catch all of the allusions in this loving ode to Asian films, especially to the kung fu genre. And will Hollywood-reared audiences really appreciate the absence of horror-film blood in Kill Bill's Samurai-style scenes? Tarantino isn't worrying about that. "I'm making this film for me," he grins. "Everyone else is along for the ride."