Once upon a time in Beijing, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood saw its hopes for a Chinese release dashed over the film’s depiction of martial arts icon Bruce Lee.
According to The Hollywood Reporter’s, China’s National Film Administration has pulled the plug on the planned release of Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie just a week before it was meant to hit theaters. While an official explanation hasn’t been provided (and likely won’t be, as is typical with China’s media censorship), rumors suggest it’s Tarantino’s depiction of Lee that caused the last-minute move. In fact, Lee’s daughter, Shannon, may have personally petitioned the NFA to make the filmmaker change her father’s portrayal.
Shannon Lee has long been vocal about her displeasure with Tarantino’s presentation of her father as an “arrogant asshole” in Once Upon a Time. In the movie, Lee (played by Mike Moh) challenges Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth to a physical contest. However, Shannon stated her dad had a strict code against willingly entering a fight with someone who wasn’t a trained martial arts expert. There’s also a line where the character claims he could beat up Muhammad Ali, something Shannon and Lee’s protégé, Dan Inosanto, argued he would never have said. Even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was unhappy with Tarantino’s take on Lee.
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Tarantino defended his version of the historical figure, but it looks like Lee has gotten the last word. China’s decision is a huge blow to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s international box office take. It currently sits at $366 million, and the Chinese market could have taken it over the $400 mark.
That’s not only a letdown for Tarantino — who would have seen his first proper Chinese release with the film — but also for the production’s Beijing-based financier, Bona Film Group. Bona holds Greater China distribution rights for the film on top of an equity stake in its worldwide box office. In a desperate attempt to still capitalize on Chinese filmgoers, Bona is reportedly scrambling to get Tarantino to re-cut the movie in time for its original October 25th release date. Update: Tarantino will not recut the movie.
Moving it later is of course possible, but history has shown that can severely reduce a movie’s gross. Tarantino’s Django Unchained entered Chinese theaters in 2012, but was pulled just minutes into opening night screenings after a senior Communist Party official took issue with its graphic violence. While a new re-edit was released a month later, pirated versions of the original with Chinese subtitles had already saturated the market. Django’s final Chinese box office take was just $2.6 million.
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As Hollywood bends more and more to the whims of China’s government in order to take advantage of the country’s massive entertainment market, issues such as this one have been on the rise. Last year, Christopher Robin was barred from release because of a meme relating China’s leader, Xi Jinping, to Winnie the Pooh. More recently, South Park was banned from all of China’s social media networks and TV after airing an episode satirizing this exact practice. DJ Zedd was subsequently also banned just for liking a tweet celebrating South Park’s 300th episode.