Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that Bruce Lee’s daughter made a direct appeal to China’s National Film Administration for changes to her father’s controversial portrayal in the film. Now, the movie’s China backer Bona Film Group is said to be frantically working with Tarantino on a new cut to salvage the release.
In a twist not unlike the ending of a Quentin Tarantino film or two, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s China box office ambitions appear to be going up in flames.
The controversial movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, had been approved for release in China on Oct. 25, but regulators have abruptly reversed course.
According to multiple sources close to the situation in Beijing, who asked not to be named because they weren’t permitted to speak publicly about the matter, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s local release has been indefinitely put on hold.
The film would have been Tarantino’s first proper release in China, and the country’s enormous market was expected to help push the title’s worldwide box office total past the US$400 million mark (it has earned US$366 million to date).
The abrupt change-up comes as a major blow to both Sony Pictures and the film’s Chinese financier, Beijing-based Bona Film Group.
As The Hollywood Reporter reported exclusively in January, Bona took a sizeable equity stake in Once Upon a Time, which gave the company participation in the film’s worldwide box office, as well as distribution rights in Greater China. Bona’s CEO Yu Dong and COO Jeffrey Chan are both prominently credited as executive producers of the film.
As is typical in China, no official explanation for the cancellation has been offered by Beijing regulators. But the story swirling through the executive ranks of China’s film industry Friday was that the decision stemmed from Tarantino’s controversial portrayal of martial arts hero Bruce Lee — a depiction which has shocked many tried and true Bruce Lee fans and family, on both sides of the ocean.
According to sources close to Bona and China’s Film Bureau, Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, made a direct appeal to China’s National Film Administration, asking that it demand changes to her father’s portrayal.
Played by Mike Moh, the Lee in Sony’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is wildly cocky and claims he could have “crippled” Muhammad Ali in a fight (referred to as Cassius Clay).
Pitt’s character, a stuntman and former war hero named Cliff Booth, laughs in Lee’s face over the comment and then the two get into a “friendly” contest of who can knock the other down three times without hitting the face.
The scuffle ends before either side wins, but Pitt appears to have an edge near the end, after throwing Lee into the side of a classic car.
Moh detailed his motivations behind the scene to Indiewire online.
“At that moment when I get slammed, that’s when Bruce realizes, oh shit, this guy is not just a stunt guy,” he said. “Because Bruce didn’t always have the most affection for stuntmen; he didn’t respect all of them, because he was better than all the stunt guys. So after I got slammed, I get serious.
“And then we get into this scuffle, which is stopped — so it’s a tie. I can see how people might think Bruce got beat because of the impact with the car, but you give me five more seconds and Bruce would have won. So I know people are going to be up in arms about it, but when I went into my deep dive of studying Bruce, he more than anybody wanted people to know he’s human.”
Bruce Lee’s daughter told Variety earlier in the year, that Tarantino should “shut up” or be apologetic, The Los Angeles Times reported.
“He could shut up about it,” Shannon Lee said when asked about how the director could quell the brouhaha over Bruce Lee’s portrayal in the film.
“While I understand that the mechanism in the story is to make Brad Pitt’s character out to be such a badass that he can beat up Bruce Lee, the script treatment of my father as this arrogant, egotistical punching bag was really disheartening — and, I feel, unnecessary,” Shannon Lee said in July, adding that Tarantino seemed to have “gone out of the way to make fun of my father and to portray him as kind of a buffoon.”
The martial artist’s daughter is chief executive of the Bruce Lee Family Co. and heads her father’s namesake charity.
Talking to Variety, she also offered Tarantino other options to make things right.
“[H]e could apologize or he could say, ‘I don’t really know what Bruce Lee was like. I just wrote it for my movie,’” she said. “But that shouldn’t be taken as how he really was.”
Lee’s family has a history of defending his reputation and memory. The martial artist’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, took issue with her late husband’s portrayal in an August 1998 piece by the L.A. Times marking the 25th anniversary of his death. She accused the paper of “sensationalizing the life and death of an extraordinarily gifted human being.”
“I am not purporting that Bruce was a perfect human being, only one that did more good than harm in his short time on this Earth,” Cadwell wrote in a letter to The Times. “He faced many obstacles in his life — overcoming racist attitudes, surviving dire economic circumstances, surmounting physical injuries — and in so doing distinguished himself as someone to be rightfully admired and emulated.”