Once Upon a Time in…China


Variety reports Quentin Tarantino won’t re-cut his latest film, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” to accommodate Chinese censors, all but assuring the production will never be shown (legally, at least) in the world’s second-largest movie market.

The buddy pic, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and pays homage to 1960s Hollywood, was expected to rake in hundreds of millions in China for Tarantino and financial backers including Sony Pictures and Beijing-based Bona Film Group.

Instead, Tarantino appears to have joined the growing ranks of commercial casualties—among them the National Basketball Association, Apple, Viacom, and Starbucks—caught in the crossfire of the escalating U.S.-China trade war.

“Once Upon a Time” was slated for release in Chinese theaters on October 25. The Los Angeles Times reported Friday that distribution has been postponed indefinitely by Chinese film regulators.

Beijing has declined comment about the delay. In the past, Chinese censors have cited excessive violence and nudity as reasons for blocking Tarantino films. But in the global business press, the prevailing theory is that this time Chinese authorities spiked Tarantino because of his film’s portrayal of martial arts icon Bruce Lee.

The Times speculates cancelation was a response to a direct appeal to China’s National Film Administration by Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, who has decried the film’s depiction of her father as a “mockery,” and demanded changes before its release in China.

I haven’t seen the film, but by all accounts the martial arts legend comes off badly in it. Reportedly Lee’s character, played by actor Mike Moh, boasts that he could have crippled Mohammed Ali—then ends up getting thrashed by Pitt’s character.

Shannon Lee has blasted Tarantino for making her father out to be “this arrogant, egotistical punching bag.” Tarantino scoffs at the complaint. The truth is, he insists, Bruce Lee was “kind of an arrogant guy.”

The tussle over Lee’s image is rich with irony. He was born in San Francisco grew up in Hong Kong, and became one of the first Asian actors recognized in Hollywood. But Hong Kong didn’t fully embrace him as a star until after his death at age 32 from a brain edema.

A statue of Lee on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront has become one of Hong Kong’s most photographed landmarks. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators have embraced his “be like water” martial arts philosophy as one of their primary spiritual influences.

Beijing, for all its hostility to Hong Kong’s protestors, seems no less keen to lay claim to Lee’s legacy—and has lately shown itself to be hypersensitive to even the smallest slights to Chinese sovereignty and identity.

Meanwhile, demonstrations in Hong Kong show no sign of dying down. Pro-democracy leaders are calling for a huge anti-government march Sunday in defiance of a police ban.

More China news below.

Clay Chandler
– Clay.Chandler@Fortune.com
– @ClayChandler


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