Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood has had its China release canceled. The ninth film from Tarantino hit America back in July and rode a wave of critical adulation to a $139 million domestic gross. Worldwide, the film has taken in $366 million, making it Tarantino’s second highest grossing film ever behind only Django Unchained ($425 million).
Of course, no Tarantino film makes it to theaters without engendering massive controversy. Once Upon a Time In Hollywood was actually controversial long before release, due to its story concerning the Manson Family and murder victim Sharon Tate. Though Tate’s portrayal did still receive criticism after the film’s release, with many arguing actress Margot Robbie was wasted in the rather thinly-written role, the film’s depiction of another real life figure, Bruce Lee, actually caused more anger, with many including Lee’s own daughter Shannon Lee arguing the film did her father a disservice, and indeed may have even gone over the line into actual racism, by portraying him as a blustering jerk in his interaction with Brad Pitt’s fictional stuntman Cliff Booth. Tarantino himself was finally forced to speak out in defense of his version of Lee, reminding people that his take on the late star is after all fictionalized, and arguing that the real life Lee was “kind of arrogant" according to people who knew him.
Now, it seems Tarantino’s depiction of Lee has ticked off the nation of China, as the country’s film regulators have decided to put the movie’s release there on indefinite hold. The film was set to release in China on October 25 after being approved back in September, but as reported by THR, Lee’s daughter made a direct appeal to China’s National Film Administration asking that the film’s portrayal of her father be altered. Tarantino has reportedly been working with his Chinese backers Bona Film Group to make the necessary changes in order to get the movie back on screens.
The Chinese market is of course important for films hoping to make major bank at the worldwide box office, and as a result has been increasingly influential in terms of dictating film content. Indeed, some have criticized Hollywood’s willingness to bend to the wishes of China in shaping their movies, arguing that the nation’s authoritarian regime should not be allowed to essentially censor films that also play in American theaters. In the case of Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, the issue is less about overall sensitive political content, as is often the case with Hollywood films headed to China, but is more about the movie’s individual depiction of Lee, a beloved Asian cinema icon.
Apparently, not even the ever-individualistic Tarantino is able to stand up to China, though in this case at least Once Upon a Time In Hollywood was already seen on American screens in its intended form before changes were forced upon it ahead of its release in China. The true issue of course is movies that are made with the particular sensitivities of the Chinese market in mind from the beginning, an approach that many say empowers authoritarianism while filling American movie screens with films that reflect Chinese values more than American ones (as South Park so hilariously argued in a recent episode that actually got it banned in China as well).