China Yanks ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ a Week Before Release

October 18, 2019, 7:37 PM UTC

Quentin Tarantino himself couldn’t have written a more dramatic twist: with just one week’s notice, China has canceled its release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, seemingly dashing the film’s chances of pushing past the $400 million mark.

Though an Oct. 25 release date had been approved by regulators, that decision has apparently been reversed, writes The Hollywood Reporter, citing multiple unnamed sources close to the shock decision in Beijing who say the film’s local release has been put on hold indefinitely.

As is common in China, regulators have offered no official explanation for the move, but one snag the film could have hit involved its depiction of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Friends and family of the late actor have excoriated Tarantino for how he portrays Lee, accusing the director of distorting his personality and doing a disservice to his memory.

The film’s only character of Chinese descent, Lee is played by Mike Moh as a cocksure movie star who claims he could have “crippled” Muhammad Ali in a fight but then struggles whilst facing off with Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth. Though their altercation, a friendly knock-down competition on a Hollywood film set, is disrupted before a winner can be determined, Cliff appears to gain the upper hand after throwing the more diminutive Lee up against a car.

Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, is said to have been so outraged by the portrayal that she appealed directly to China’s National Film Administration, asking it to demand the film be recut so as to paint Lee in a better light.

Whatever officially came of that appeal, it set off an explosive chain reaction at Bona Film Group, with the Chinese Once Upon a Time in Hollywood financier imploring Tarantino to recut his film so it could be resubmitted and reapproved, salvaging the Oct. 25 opening.

As of Friday afternoon, however, that last-minute effort appears to have been thwarted. Still, there is time, if only just, for Tarantino (who has final cut over the film as part of his deal with Sony and Bona) to deliver a different version of the movie that might be more amenable to Beijing regulators.

Given the graphic violence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood‘s finale, and its centrality to the film’s plot and themes, it might be difficult for Tarantino to tone it down and address the controversy surrounding Lee’s portrayal—without sacrificing his artistic intent, something the filmmaker has in the past advocated loudly for preserving.

The Chinese release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would have been Tarantino’s first proper rollout. With Bona having taken a significant equity stake in the production, hopes were high for Tarantino’s well-received Hollywood love letter to resonate with Chinese audiences.

But the director’s never had luck in China, notorious for its censoring of language, sex, and violence – the holy trinity of Tarantino touchstones. His only other title to receive a proper release there was Django Unchained, and that slave-liberation Western had an infamously disastrous premiere in 2013.

Minutes into its opening night, the title was suddenly pulled from screens, with sources at the time crediting a senior Communist Party official with the decision. That individual had reportedly seen the movie on opening night and been outraged by its graphic violence, demanding an immediate blackout on the title. After heavy and expensive cuts to the title, Django received a much more muted release a month later, undercut by the fact that pirated copies of the film with Chinese subtitling were by then in steady circulation.

Even if Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees release in some form around China, it’s just the latest in a string of recent incidents in which American media and celebrities have run afoul of censors, who’ve responded with decisive retaliation against those critiquing Chinese censorship practices or commenting on civilian protests in Hong Kong.

Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey issued an apology after a tweet in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong pulled the NBA into a political firestorm. Lebron James was among the players to address Morey’s tweet, telling reporters he believed the manager “not informed” about the subject.

The satirical cartoon South Park, known for its mocking attitude toward hot-button political issues, saw its existence practically erased from the Chinese internet after taking a sustained jab at Hollywood for shaping content in such a way as to avoid offending Chinese government censors. By way of response, a South Park-shaped hole was left on Chinese streaming services, social media, and fan forums, the series diligently scrubbed from the Chinese internet landscape.

Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, not ones to cave under political pressure, responded with a tongue-in-cheek “statement.”

“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the statement reads. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. Xi doesn’t look like Winnie the Pooh at all. Tune into our 300th episode this Wednesday at 10! Long live the great Communist Party of China. May the autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful. We good now China?”

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