Tarantino Reignites Bruce Lee Controversy

By Joshua Cawthorpe, July 6, 2021

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During an interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast on June 30, Quentin Tarantino doubled down on his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The film, released in the US in July 2019, was slated for release the following October in Chinese cinemas but was pulled shortly before the scheduled date. The cancelation came amid reports that Bruce Lee’s daughter appealed to China’s National Film Administration asking for depictions of the famed martial artist to be changed.

Shannon Lee, the late actor’s daughter, expressed her dissatisfaction with her father’s character in the film being “arrogant” and treated as a “dispensable stereotype,” according to People.

tarantino.jpgThe clip from episode 1,675 of ‘The Joe Rogan Experience’ has been viewed over three million times on Youtube. Screengrab via @时光网Mtime/Weibo

In an expletive-filled rant, Tarantino alleges that Bruce Lee was disrespectful to American stuntmen and would often hit them, rather than pretend to, in order to make scenes appear more realistic. The award-winning director reiterated that he “didn’t just make a lot of that up.” He claims that Bruce Lee was boastful and braggadocious in real life, thus inspiring his unfavorable portrayal in the movie. Tarantino references a biography of Bruce Lee written by Michael Polly.

A month after the film’s release, former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar came to Lee’s defense. He told Entertainment Weekly that, throughout their friendship, strangers often challenged Bruce Lee to fight and he always politely declined.

Chinese netizens were quick to stand up for Bruce Lee’s character and, although a number of comment threads on Weibo have been hidden, many suggested that jealousy could be behind the allegations that he was disrespectful behind the scenes.

READ MORE: Netizens Hit Back at Bruce Lee Representation in New Tarantino Film

One user wrote below an article on Baidu that Tarantino is generally not a very positive person, as one can see from his “negative and exaggerated” films. Bruce Lee’s rise to prominence in Western cinema in the face of prejudice and discrimination remains a point of great pride for many Chinese fans.

Both Tarantino and the actor, Mike Moh, who plays Lee in the film, have faced criticism for what is deemed an unfair and unrealistic portrayal of the famous kung fu superstar. 

Bruce Lee, born in San Francisco, grew up in Hong Kong where he studied martial arts under the Wing Chun Grandmaster, Yip Man. 

He moved back to America at the age of 18 but later returned to continue his acting career in Hong Kong. According to his daughter, he suffered unfair treatment at the hands of “white Hollywood.”

Bruce-Lee-grinning.jpg
Bruce Lee circa 1973. Image via Wikimedia

In Hong Kong, Lee made three smash-hit kung fu movies and skyrocketed to fame in China and abroad. Even Chairman Mao Zedong allegedly was a fan of Bruce Lee and held a private viewing of Fist of Fury in Beijing, as reported by Reuters. Lee suffered a mysterious death shortly before the release of his most famous film, Enter the Dragon, in 1973.

Shannon Lee, who is responsible for managing her father’s legacy and estate, made headlines in 2019 when she sued popular Chinese restaurant chain Real Kung Fu. The lawsuit, demanding RMB210 million in compensation, asserts that the brand's logo is a likeness of Bruce Lee and was used for fifteen years without permission.

READ MORE: Bruce Lee’s Daughter Sues Chinese Fast Food Chain

[Cover image via @深焦DeepFocus/Weibo]

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