Many of us martial artists seek out jobs in the movie industry, especially as stunt doubles. But Satya Bellord, martial arts double for Uma Thurman in the movie Kill Bill, was in a much more enviable position. Kill Bill's action director, the legendary Yuen Wo Ping, and director Quentin Tarantino sought her out.
Satya, the eldest daughter of Zhang Hui Lan (Wai Lana), was born in Hong Kong and raised in the New Territories until 12 years of age. Satya and her siblings lived a simple life of climbing trees, hiking, Yoga Sound singing and dancing, doing yoga asanas and helping neighboring friends. Sometimes they traveled with their mom when she took the train into China to teach yoga to people in different places around the country, before she started producing her television series.
At the age of 12, Satya, along with her younger sister Subhadra, pestered their mom to allow them to live in a private yoga and martial arts school (ashram) for girls. The girls studied and trained intensely in Taekwondo with the top Taekwondo masters in the Philippines for a number of years, where their love for martial arts was established.
Satya’s mom, Wai Lana, introduced yoga to China in 1985 with her yoga show which aired nationwide on CCTV every day 3 times a day up to the year 2000, so for many years Satya with her sister Subhadra remained very busy traveling to various places around the world, helping their mom with her TV series, learning everything from making her garlands, to organizing her makeup.
As the sisters continued to learn yoga from their mom and trained in various forms of martial arts, including Tae Kwon Do, Wushu, and Tai Chi, the young girls’ instructors soon became aware of the immense talent they both possessed. The siblings were thus encouraged to focus on their martial arts training, particularly in Wushu—in which their brother, Siddha, had also taken a keen interest. With expert personal instruction, the siblings studied the art of choreography with some of the top choreographers from both Taiwan and Hong Kong—the heart of the martial arts films. After receiving coaching from many such masters, they had the great fortune to come under the instruction of world-renowned Wushu expert Liang Chang Xing, world champion, 9-time Chinese national Wushu champion, and former captain of the first Beijing Wushu team. They became masters at both martial arts and yoga—practicing martial arts and yoga their entire lives.
Liang Chang Xing has been their full-time martial arts teacher for the last two decades.
Satya has attained the highest skill levels in WuShu, Tae kwon Do and Yoga and has developed into a master of all disciplines. Her skills can be seen in films produced with Ninjai Gang Productions, the yoga dvd’s that she teaches on, which are distributed internationally and her work on “Kill Bill.” Her fluency in both English and Mandarin allows her to reach a much larger audience as a leading star.
Because Satya’s sister, brother and many of her friends were all into martial arts, they decided they wanted to do some kind of martial arts productions. Those ideas turned into serious projects which are now being developed as live action and animation films.
Satya first learned martial arts because it was fun and an enjoyable way to compete with friends. But over time, she began to experience that martial arts could be used to be of service to others. After watching many martial arts movies and TV shows, Satya and her siblings realized that people really like martial arts and saw the potential in making productions that have a deeper meaning, offer a positive impact on society, and inspire people to discover deeper insights into life. The disciplines of martial arts and yoga ultimately steered the siblings toward making their own animation and movie productions.
Excerpts from Black Belt Magazine's interview with Satya Bellord, a member of the Ninjai Gang
Black Belt: What’s the difference between a martial arts double and a stunt double?
Satya Bellord: The martial arts double specializes in martial arts, especially moves that require a higher skill and energy level. A trained martial artist develops an inner strength that isn’t there in an actor or stunt person whose martial arts training is limited.
BB: How did you get the job on Kill Bill?
Satya Bellord: I was working with my brother and sister on a couple projects of our own when we got an email from our old friends Yuen Wo Ping and Fish Fong. They told us about this movie project and how they were having a hard time finding the right martial arts doubles for the lead characters, especially Uma Thurman. We had told them in the past that we wouldn’t be interested in stunt work and that we only wanted to do our own projects unless they came up with significant co-starring roles. But it soon became clear to us that Yuen Wo Ping, Fish Fong and the Kill Bill production were in a tight spot.
BB: Why couldn’t they get somebody else? Didn’t they hold auditions?
Satya Bellord: By the time they contacted us, they’d already been holding auditions for months in China and the United States, but they couldn’t find a really good martial arts double for Uma. The talent was there in China, but all the potential doubles were too short and Asian-looking to pass for Uma. In the U.S. they found some people who were tall enough, but Yuen Wo Ping wasn’t satisfied with their level of skill. Anyway, they asked us if we would at least come to LA to meet Tarantino and other people on the project, and we agreed.
BB: What’s your martial arts background?
Satya Bellord: My siblings and I were born in Hong Kong and spent a lot of our childhood studying in Far East convents where martial arts was a big part of everyday life. So we’ve been training since childhood, specializing in Tae Kwon Do, Wushu, Tai Chi, and yoga. Our training in the last 12 years or so has been especially intense; we’ve been training anywhere from 5 to 7 hours a day, 6 days a week.
BB: I understand you guys have been really fortunate to have had as your full-time Wushu coach for the last 10 years Liang Chang Xing, the former captain of the first Beijing Wushu team.
Satya Bellord: Yes. And that Wushu team is still renowned as the most skilled team ever. Jet Li was one of the younger members of that team. They were champions of China 10 years in a row. I’ve never seen anyone who possesses the perfection of form and spirit Chang Xing has. Even after years of training with him, I am still awestruck at how graceful yet powerful his moves are. Chang Xing has been training us in Wushu for over a decade. He is also the main action director for our projects Karma Kula and Ninjai: The Little Ninja.
BB: What’s the most important factor in making a fight sequence look good?
Satya Bellord: I understand the financial reason movie studios use non-martial artist actors in the starring roles. And if you have a really good action director, director, good martial arts doubles, and good camera and editing techniques, you can make fight sequences look good. But nothing can compare to fight sequences that have really first-class martial artists. The big budget martial arts-centered movies we see nowadays can look good, but I still don’t think the action can compare to movies starring real martial artists like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and others. Qualities that develop over a lifetime of training come across on the screen and can’t be faked.
Another key is to stay away from what I call “fighting in a bubble.” That’s where a participant is just in their own little bubble doing their moves and they’re not really adjusting to or communicating with their opponents. The most frustrating situation is where all the different opponents are in their own little world focused on doing what they’re supposed to be doing and expecting the other players to adjust to them.
BB: What was the hardest part of being Uma’s martial arts double?
Satya Bellord: It was actually very easy except for one thing: keeping my head down. The martial arts double is supposed to try to keep her head down, otherwise people might recognize it’s not the star. But I had a hard time doing that in the main martial arts sequence where I was moving down a corridor killing guys left and right. Quentin told me after the first take that it was really great, but he asked me to do a take where I’m not looking so strongly at the bad guys I was slicing because I was facing right into the camera. So on the second take I tried to lower my head and gaze, but it really threw me off. It didn’t have the same energy and power. I’ve been so used to being the strong warrior who keeps her head up and faces her opponent head on. There is a saying in Chinese, "A lowered head and a bent back mean low level of skill." I explained to Quentin that in martial arts, power comes from focus, and the more you focus on each move, the more powerful it is. In other words, your body twists to face the person you’re cutting, your arm reaches out with the sword to slice him, your hips snap to the left as that sword comes down and your eyes zoom in on your target and make sure that blade goes right through that sucker with one clean, fast slice [laughs]. Fortunately Quentin appreciated how much better and powerful the sequence was when my head was up and my gaze focused on the opponents. So he had me stick with that. He later told me that it all worked out great.
Here are some unpublished excerpts from the Black Belt interview now available on NJGang.com
Q: How did Quentin find out about you?
Satya Bellord: He had obviously seen a videotape of us doing martial arts, and Yuen Wo Ping and Fish had told him about us. Quentin kept telling us how determined he was to make Kill Bill the best martial arts film ever. He’s a perfectionist, so once he gets it into his mind that he needs a certain person for a certain job, he won’t accept anyone else. So once he got it in his head that he wanted both me and my sister Subhadra to be Uma’s martial arts doubles, it was practically impossible to say no to him. So in the end, we compromised. We let them know that I would go but Subhadra needed to keep working on our own productions.
Q: Why did he want both of you?
Satya Bellord: Our skills are the same, but my sister is closer to Uma Thurman’s height. Uma is tall—like 6 feet. I’m only 5’ 7” and Subhadra is around 5’ 10.” But my facial structure is really close to Uma’s. So Quentin’s idea was to use Subhadra for further away shots and me for closer up shots. That would have been ideal for him, but taking us both off our own productions would have gotten us too far off our schedule. Fortunately it all worked out well, even without Subhadra.
Q: Your martial arts training sounds intense and hard.
Satya Bellord: It is sometimes, but we're used to it. During the summer time I usually sweat through 5-6 shirts a day and we battle with sore muscles and fatigue a lot. Some mornings it seems almost impossible to get up, like my body is glued to the bed. But those are the times when you can't give up, because that's when improvement is made. Our wushu coach always said that when you feel like training, that isn’t training. The times when you don't feel like training but you still train, that is called real training.
Q: How do you prepare for a fight sequence?
Satya Bellord: What I do is I go through the moves slowly and clearly so that all the distances and positionings are all worked out, then as soon as I feel confident I pick up the speed and after many repetitions I start to be able to focus on and feel the rhythm, drama and mood of the sequence. But when the shooting starts, I let go of all the preparation. The saying that the camera "reads everything" goes for fighting as well. If you're thinking, "What’s my next move?" or, "I messed up on that one," it will show.