After eight successful pictures that have been reinventing Hollywood since 1992—when his first film Reservoir Dogs debuted—Quentin Tarantino is back with yet another star-studded blockbuster, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Widely recognised for his unconventional cinematic style, like the nonlinear storyline in Pulp Fiction, and the over-the-top violence (as well as an unhealthily excessive amount of blood) in the Kill Bill series, Tarantino never shies away from publicly citing the influence of Hong Kong films in his own pieces. In fact, he’s even a self-proclaimed “student of Hong Kong cinema”.
From gangster-style martial arts to wuxia films, many elements and style of local cinema play a significant role in shaping the auteur’s work and arousing his creativity. So what are these local films that ignited the filmmaker’s extreme infatuation with Hong Kong cinema and what are some of the influences he took from them?
This local kung fu classic was released before the rise of Bruce Lee with a pretty straightforward plot—the villain kills the friend and master of the protagonist, Lei Ming, and he undergoes rigorous training to avenge him. Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? The Chinese Boxer is a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, a revenge tale about the Bride, a former assassin, wreaking vengeance on the team of assassins who betrayed her.
Let’s recall (if you can) that climax scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Fueled by hatred and spite, the Bride proceeds to take on O-Ren Ishii—one of the assassins on her death list—and her army of bodyguards named the Crazy 88 at the House of Blue Leaves. Limbs getting slashed off, blood spurting and splattering like a fountain—it’s a perfect epitome of cinematic catharsis. But those who take it as Tarantino’s sole artistic genius may be mistaken. The infamous showdown is very much analogous to the scene in The Chinese Boxer when Wang Yu fights against a gang of Japanese karate thugs, approximately 100 enemies strong.
Quentin Tarantino also borrowed costume ideas from his influences. Perhaps one that springs instantly to mind is the yellow-and-black tracksuit worn by Uma Thurman in the House of the Blue Leaves scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1. The same outfit was infamously worn by the iconic Bruce Lee in The Game of Death. Lee stars as a martial arts movie star who must fake his own death to find the murderers attempting to kill him. Eerily, Lee could not escape his own “game of death” during filming—his death supposedly caused by an adverse reaction to a painkiller he had been given—leaving the film as his final cinematic attempt.
If you have watched both volumes of Kill Bill, think back to the scenes whenever the Bride confronts a member of the Deadly Vipers. The screen turns crimson with superimposed flashback footage, coupled with the Ironsides siren sound of vengeance that spurred the internet to produce countless wacky memes. While the red-coloured flashback was an original element first used in Five Fingers of Death, the 1972 martial arts film did appropriate the iconic sound effect from Quincy Jones’s Ironsides theme score. In the film, two opposing martial arts schools prepare for an important tournament that will cement the power and prestige of the winner. The “iron fist” technique and the distasteful eye-gouging trick from Kill Bill also originates from it.
Recycling actors from other movies and casting them in similar roles for your own film may come off as a cheap act. But when Quentin Tarantino does it, it’s a stroke of brilliance. The actor in question is the local martial artist Gordon Liu, who was cast in two almost identical roles in the 1978 Hong Kong kung fu movie 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2, as Liu Yude and Pai Mei respectively.
Liu undergoes the fifth dimension of time and space to transform from a soon-to-be Shaolin monk in 36th Chamber of Shaolin to the Shaolin grandmaster in Kill Bill Vol. 2, coaching the Bride in the ultimate deadly techniques that will eventually defeat her enemies. He also travels from the Qing dynasty to the modern era and yet remains the kung fu wizard who can stand still on a sword and so readily leap off in the air with a gentle push. Put the character in a kung fu cinematic universe and he would not be out of place. It’s safe to say Gordon Liu in 36th Chamber of Shaolin instilled in Tarantino the brainchild of the character Pai Mei in Kill Bill Vol. 2.
Here comes the big deal. Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs has long been accused of ripping off Ringo Lam’s 1987 crime flick City on Fire. This was so widely debated that it became the subject of the notorious, underground classic Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?, a documentary produced in 1993 that claims Quentin Tarantino borrowed many elements from City on Fire without giving it proper credit.
Starring Chow Yun Fat, City on Fire tells the story of an undercover cop infiltrating a gang of thieves who plan to rob a jewellery store. Similarly, in Reservoir Dogs, after a jewellery heist goes disastrously wrong, one of the criminals is suspected to be a police informant. Though the plots are not far off, the two differ in how the story is told—quote Tarantino’s ace soundtrack, verbose dialogue, and sadistic violence.
Scene-wise, perhaps the most obvious echo is the three-way Mexican standoff that results in a not-so-favourable resolution in both films (you know we’re trying to avoid spoilers). In the heist scene, Harvey Keitel, same as Danny Lee in City on Fire, unloads a pair of pistols into a police cruiser’s windshield after a botched heist; both Tim Roth and Chow Yun Fat also take bullets to their bellies when fleeing the scene. The similarities between the two films do make you wonder…
Name me one opening credits sequence that can rival the iconic mobs-in-natty-black-suits-walking-in-slow-motion imagery in Reservoir Dogs and I’ll give you 50 bucks. Now where did Tarantino get that inspiration from? The intro scene is a tribute to John Woo’s action vehicle A Better Tomorrow II. As a successful follow-up to its previous instalment, Chow Yun Fat stars as the long-lost twin brother of ex-gangster Mark Lee—also played by Chow in the predecessor—who teams up with a police officer and his ex-con brother to avenge the death of a friend’s daughter.
Rejoice when Chow stalks the streets of New York City in a black tan coat, aviator sunglasses, and a cigarette between his lips—the sartorial glamour of which is referenced in Reservoir Dogs. Funny enough, Quentin Tarantino found the look so cool that he copied Chow’s outfit entirely and, just like that, walked around L.A. for three months. Anecdotes rarely get better than that.
John Woo’s action thriller The Killer is yet another classic that Tarantino paid homage to. Chow Yun Fat plays the disillusioned assassin (seriously, how many times has he been typecast as a gangster that’s exceptionally good at playing with guns?), who accidentally blinds singer Jennie, played by Sally Weh. He is set on one last hit in hopes of restoring her vision, only to be double-crossed by his boss.
In Jackie Brown, Tarantino wrote dialogues that reference The Killer. Jackie Brown follows a middle-aged woman who finds herself amid a huge conflict that will either make her a fortune or cost her life. In the beginning, Samuel L. Jackson’s Ordell telling Robert De Niro’s Louis that the people he sells guns to don’t just want one gun, but two—because “they all wanna be the Killer”—is an apparent reference. Tarantino also took note of Woo’s beautifully-choreographed shoot-out and combat style of firing two guns at once—all perfectly leveraged in Jackie Brown.