VENICE, Italy – Japanese director Sion Sono wants to set the records straight: It was Bruce Lee and not Quentin Tarantino who transformed the yellow jumpsuit into a piece of film iconography. Sono has been fielding questions all day about Tarantino’s influence on his film Why Don’t You Play in Hell? which premiered to an enthusiastic reception out of the main competition at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday.
The raucous gangster drama telling the story of a young filmmaker aiming at cinematic greatness is full of over-the-top graphic violence, and a would-be action star wears a yellow jumpsuit, as sported by Uma Thurman in Tarantino’s Kill Bill.
“I speak as head of the ‘Bruce Lee Fan Club,’” Sono said in an interview. “Everyone is talking about the yellow tracksuit as something from Tarantino, but that is very sad for me. The original idea was Bruce Lee’s, and now everyone thinks it came from Tarantino.”
Sono drafted Jun Kunimura, a veteran of John Woo films who also appeared as Boss Tanaka in both Kill Bill movies, to star as a clan boss whose wife single-handedly massacres a rival gang. The movie also stars Fumi Nikaido, recipient of Venice’s young actress award in 2011 for her role in Sono’s film Himizu, as the clan boss’s daughter who longs for stardom after her career as a toothpaste TV commercial star is quashed by her mother’s murderous tirade.
Kunimura said he enjoyed the chance to play a character that didn’t have to be controlled.
“For my whole career, my expression has been the opposite of exaggerated. I would try to be as straight as possible,” Kunimura said, adding that Sono “is crazy, in a good way.”
Against the backdrop of spiraling gang violence, a young filmmaker inspired by Sono himself and played by Hiroki Hasegawa assembles a film troupe determined to make one great film. The gang/filmmaker plot lines weave together and climax with gangsters and filmmakers both shooting guns and cameras, respectively, in one small space.
Sono wrote the script 20 years ago – before the Kill Bill movies, he points out – as a portrait of his own struggles to become a filmmaker. “I wanted to create something purely interesting.”
“The film is about the problems I faced” as an aspiring filmmaker, Sono said, and he included episodes from his own life, including a scene when a bunch of kids makes fun of, then tries to beat up a Bruce Lee-style actor as the troupe films in a park.
The movie brims with good-natured absurdity and pokes fun at the movie industry, ruefully commenting on the decline of modern cinema. The young filmmaker, full of ambition, bemoans the decline of 35mm even as he shoots on video, and wears a Cannes T-shirt with an Oscar statuette.
“Perhaps it was a miscalculation, because I didn’t think this movie would come to either Cannes or Venice,” Sono said.