Bruce Lee’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Depiction Could Delay the Movie’s Chinese Release

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The latest twist in the ongoing controversy over Bruce Lee’s depiction in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might be the most consequential yet, as Variety reports that the Lee portrayal could be imperiling the film’s Chinese release.

According to Variety, the film’s original October 25 Chinese release date has been delayed in the wake of a complaint from Lee’s daughter concerning her father’s portrayal 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 only goes for two rounds, and while Lee wins the first one, Pitt’s character throws him into a car at the end of the second.

Daughter Shannon Lee, as well as Lee’s friend Kareem Abdul Jabbar and biographer Matthew Polly have complained that the late martial artist’s depiction in the film is both inaccurate and insulting. Tarantino’s Lee is pompous, and boasts that he could best Muhammad Ali in a fight. And despite his status as one of the world’s greatest martial artist, he’s taken down by Pitt’s anonymous stuntman character. After the film’s release, it was revealed that Tarantino originally wrote the fight scene as a decisive win for Pitt, until the star and the movie’s stunt coordinator insisted that the fight end in a draw.

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.”

Lee is a national hero in China, and Shannon Lee reportedly filed her complaint to China’s National Film Administration. “As long as Quentin can make some cuts,” a source told Variety, the film “will be released as planned.”

When asked about the controversy, Tarantino defended his portrayal. “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy,” said the director during an August press conference. “If people are saying, ‘Well he never said he could beat up Mohammad Ali?’ Well, yeah he did.”
“Could Cliff beat up Bruce Lee?” Tarantino continued. “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.”

Polly later fact checked the director via Twitter, citing a biography that quoted Lee as saying Ali would “kill” him if the two fought.

“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.