Quentin Tarantino won't recut 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' after film is pulled in China

While regulators haven't said why they pulled the movie a week before its release, sources say its portrayal of Bruce Lee could be to blame.
Image: Director Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino attends a premiere in London in 2013.Olivia Harris / Reuters file

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By Kimmy Yam

Director Quentin Tarantino has no plans to recut “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” after Chinese regulators pulled the movie a week before it was scheduled to be released in the country on Friday, a source told the Hollywood Reporter.

While regulators have not offered an explanation for the decision, sources told the outlet that the movie’s portrayal of martial arts legend Bruce Lee as an overly cocky, pompous loser could be to blame. Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, reportedly made a bid to the country’s National Film Administration, calling on it to require Tarantino, who has final cut rights, to alter her father’s portrayal.

Shannon Lee and others including basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have criticized the movie for reducing Bruce Lee to a punchline. In one scene that’s received backlash, Lee, played by Mike Moh, challenges stunt man Cliff Booth, portrayed by Brad Pitt, to a fight. Booth ends up throwing a cocky Lee against a car so hard that it crushes the side, proving that Booth is still a worthy stuntman even though his career appears to be struggling. Critics argue that the scene exploits the martial arts legend by making him merely a narrative vehicle.

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Shannon Lee has been vocal in her dismay at her father’s depiction since the movie’s release in July. She told The Wrap that “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father.”

Tarantino responded to the criticism, doubling down on his portrayal of the martial artist at a press conference in Moscow in August, claiming that “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy.” Shannon Lee fired back in an interview with Variety, suggesting the director “could shut up about” the issue.

“That would be really nice,” she told the outlet. “Or he could apologize or he could say: ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie. But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was.’”

For many Asian American men, who’ve had a history of being emasculated in Hollywood, Bruce Lee remains an important figure, representing strength and power. Because of status as a martial arts icon, the actor avoided being relegated to the nerdy, sexless tropes that existed for Asian men at the time.

While some have celebrated Tarantino for his firm opposition to re-cutting the movie to assuage China as a statement against censorship, he has modified past movies for the Chinese market. His 2012 film “Django Unchained” was pulled in the country for graphic violence on its opening day. A month later, the film was re-released after a handful of violent sequences were excised. The movie subsequently flopped in the country.

Neither Tarantino nor Shannon Lee responded to NBC News’ requests for comment.

Western companies have increasingly felt the control China has over their businesses in the country. In a since-deleted tweet, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey expressed support for pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong. The Chinese government, the Chinese Basketball Association and various Chinese entities swiftly cut ties with the Rockets. Morey walked back on his initial tweet, apologizing on social media.

“I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event,” he wrote. “I have had a lot of opportunity since that tweet to hear and consider other perspectives.”

Morey’s tweet and response prompted a fierce debate over free speech and his responsibility to the business interests of the Rockets and the NBA. Others, including Lakers star forward LeBron James, chimed in on the topic only to come under fire themselves.

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