Good for Quentin Tarantino, for not capitulating to the Chinese government and marginalizing his film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, declining to trim scenes of violence, or the one that featured Bruce Lee sparring with Brad Pitt’s stuntman character. It seemed a non-starter that the filmmaker would cave when China informed Sony is was pulling the film at the last minute from Chinese theaters. After all, Tarantino has final cut on his films, which Sony Pictures and Bona Film Group well knew when they acquired the picture after The Weinstein Company cratered. Tarantino’s film has grossed $366 million worldwide, and they can live without the China box office, particularly when the film’s backers would only reap 25 cents on the dollar.
I’m told that Sony didn’t try to force Tarantino to capitulate and if that is true, good for the film studio for showing some spine. Where is the sanctity of a filmmaker’s vision? The head of China’s propaganda department has apparently been raising alarm bells over the violence in the film, and the depiction of the iconic martial artist, for weeks.
I was beginning to think there was no room for mavericks anymore, this after the fiery Kurt Sutter got fired from his series creation Mayans MC yesterday. I think that the PC press narrative in the U.S. about Tarantino’s depiction of Bruce Lee wasn’t helpful, as it was presented like an affront to diversity. That gave it momentum it perhaps didn’t deserve, fomenting the idea that presenting Lee or any other deceased cultural icon as anything less than a deity is perilous for a filmmaker.
The fact is, of course Lee would have been cocky, and had a chip on his shoulder. He would need it to get as far as he did at a time when Hollywood was so anti-Asian that ABC cast a white man, David Carradine, instead of Lee in Kung Fu, the series that Lee helped develop as a vehicle for himself.
More importantly, Tarantino’s scene with Lee and Pitt’s Cliff Booth character primarily exposed the reason that stuntman was unemployable, and worked as a gofer/driver. The character knew he’d been given a job by the stunt coordinator (Kurt Russell) who didn’t want him, as a favor to actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Booth by all rights should have kept his mouth shut when Lee was holding court and talking boastfully about fighting. But he couldn’t help himself, and the former soldier squared off with Lee, and destroyed the car door of the stunt coordinator’s wife, who already despised him, and got him fired. It is funny, but also tells you everything you need to know about Pitt’s character, a former soldier who was murkily involved in the death of his wife. How does that mar Lee’s legend?
I recall noting in print here not long ago that Lee’s Enter the Dragon was a classic. After I wrote it, the film’s screenwriter shot me an appreciative email. I noted that the film had an anniversary upcoming, and a look back might be fun. But he wrote that he had such an unpleasant experience on that film, with Lee banning him from the set, that it wouldn’t be appropriate.
Even if Lee is demanding and cocky, that doesn’t make him a bad person, at all. Most of us that love his memory and movies never expected him to be Gandhi. It’s perfectly okay that Lee’s daughter might not like it, but honestly, so what? Will Baz Luhrmann have the same problem with his Elvis Presley film if that icon is presented as anything other than wonderful in every way and a family member is offended? This instinct to sanitize everything to prevent bruised feelings in this PC moment, and the way these stories reverberate around the world virally, cannot be good for the creative process and the need for honesty and edge.
Rarely do the Chinese change course and reschedule a movie after it gets pulled abruptly like this, but hopefully Sony lives with that. The 25 cents on the dollar that China kicks back to U.S. studios on its movies can’t be worth the indignity for an auteur like Tarantino to have to compromise his vision, as he would have had to do to sanitize his vision for the Chinese movie marketplace.