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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Chinese Release Canceled Over Bruce Lee Controversy
After reports emerged that Quentin Tarantino’s controversial portrayal of Bruce Lee in Once Upon Upon a Time in Hollywood threatened the film’s Chinese release, a source told Variety that, “as long as Quentin can make some cuts” the movie would “be released as planned.” But the famed director has reportedly refused to edit the film to appease Chinese censors—and its release in the country has been cancelled.
Though Chinese officials have issued no explanation for the cancellation, Variety reported Friday that the original October 25th release date became imperiled in the wake of a complaint from Lee’s daughter concerning her father’s depiction in the movie. In Once Upon a Time, Lee, played by Mike Moh, is shown fighting with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth in a three-round match. The encounter is interrupted after the second bout, and while Lee wins the first round, Pitt’s character throws him into a car at the end of the second
Lee is a national hero in China, and his daughter reportedly made a direct complaint to China’s National Film Administration. She, like Lee’s friend Kareem Abdul Jabbar and biographer Matthew Polly, has publicly argued that the late martial artist’s depiction in the film is both inaccurate and insulting. Tarantino’s Lee is pompous and obnoxious, and despite his status as one of the world’s greatest martial artists, he’s taken down by Pitt’s character, an anonymous stuntman. After the film’s release, it was revealed that Tarantino originally wrote the fight scene as a decisive win for Pitt’s Cliff Booth, until the star and the movie’s stunt coordinator insisted that the fight end in a draw.
Once Upon A Time’s debut was to mark Tarantino’s first conventional Chinese theatrical release. In 2012, the launch of the director’s Django Unchained was similarly cancelled by censors at the last minute. No official cause was issued, but according to The Hollywood Reporter, sources attributed the cancellation to a Communist Party official’s objection to the film’s violence. Django was recut for its delayed Chinese release but was not a theatrical success as it had already been widely pirated.
When asked about the controversy this summer, Tarantino defended his portrayal of Lee. “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” said the director at a press conference. “Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee? Brad would not be able to beat up Bruce Lee, but Cliff maybe could… The reality of the situation is this: Cliff is a Green Beret. He has killed many men in WWII in hand-to-hand combat.”
Lee is the only significant non-white character in Once Upon a Time, and Abdul Jabbar called his depiction “somewhat racist.”
“There’s nothing else to call him but the butt of the joke, because everything that makes him powerful is the very thing that makes him laughable in the film,” cinema scholar Nancy Wang Yuen told the LA Times. “His kung fu becomes a joke, and his philosophizing becomes a fortune cookie, and the sounds that he makes as he does kung fu are literally made fun of by Cliff. They made his arrogance look like he was a fraud.”
“I love Quentin Tarantino. I absolutely adore his films, and I think every filmmaker has the right to do whatever they want with history,” Polly told Esquire in August. “What bothered me was that he was very reverential and sympathetic with Steve McQueen, Sharon Tate, and Jay Sebring, but Bruce’s portrayal was more mocking. And given that Bruce was the only non-white historical figure in the whole film, I thought that was problematic.”
Gabrielle Bruney is a writer and editor for Esquire, where she focuses on politics and culture.