Activists demonstrating for freedom in Hong Kong and Spain’s Catalan region in recent days have adopted the slogan “Be Water,” a reference to the philosophy of the late Bruce Lee, whose fighting mantra was to move quickly and fluidly as water would, or in this case as thousands of protesters did as they swarmed public areas despite an intense police presence.
Those protests may seem unrelated to Chinese officials’ recent decision to indefinitely delay the release of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but it is an indication that the action-comedy got caught up in complex politics playing out between China and the United States, even impacting which American movies reach Chinese theaters.
Even more strangely, the legacy of Bruce Lee, kept alive by his daughter, also appears to be a reason that Tarantino’s ninth movie was pulled from Chinese theaters one week before its release date, bringing protests from some Tarantino supporters.
Shannon Lee, who runs the official Bruce Lee businesses and foundation, reportedly lodged a complaint with the Chinese film authorities demanding two scenes in which her late father is portrayed in a confrontation with Pitt’s stuntman character be excised, because they made the iconic Kung Fu star look arrogant.
That had some Hollywood insiders shaking their heads.
“The scenes weren’t particularly provocative,” says an industry exec who has worked with Tarantino. “He’s portrayed as being confident. This is art. It was never a literal biography.”
“Tarantino worships Bruce Lee,” adds the exec. “He has homages to him in many of his films. He’s was just showing him as a confident guy. Is that the kind of thing that ought to ban a movie in an entire country? I don’t think so.”
“I think (Tarantino) feels bad that people feel bad,” says the exec. “That wasn’t his intention. But its hard. You can’t do only what fans want. Otherwise there is no originality left. It would make really boring movies.”
Shannon calls it her mission to keep alive the memory of her father, not just as a movie star and martial artist but also a philosopher. She sees this as part of her effort to defend that legacy, especially after Tarantino failed to consult with her during script writing and production.
“I have dedicated myself to keeping my father’s energy alive,” Shannon writes on Brucelee.com, “ because his words and the way he lived his life have had a profound effect on me and my personal growth.”
Others see a profit motive as well. The chatter on Chinese social media is that Shannon is making a deal with Chinese officials to make their own Bruce Lee movie, which might explain her increased clout.
Shannon did not respond to requests for comment. Since giving media interviews about her distaste for the movie before the China bombshell hit, she has remained silent.
The divorced mother of one has a lot at stake. In 2013, Forbes reported that Bruce Lee Enterprises earned about $13 million in licensing revenue. That has risen to as much as $19 million in years since. This past year Shannon also served as executive producer of Showtime’s Warrior series, based on an idea her father had half a century ago.
Some argue she has no right to stop the Chinese release.
“This is a singular private citizen, with financial incentive to make sure that portrayals of the late martial artist are sufficiently reverent, having a sad because a fictionalized version of a real-life person wasn’t unflinchingly reverential to the actual person and then taking those concerns to a foreign and authoritarian governmental censorship authority in order to get the film pulled in a key marketplace,” Scott Mendelson writes for Forbes.
Tarantino and Sony aren’t suffering too much over the loss of the legal Chinese market. A Chinese financing partner was hit hard because it held China market rights.
Tarantino’s movie is plenty profitable without China, with over $366 million in ticket sales worldwide. That will increase if the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood gets the awards attention it’s expected to get.
Shannon is getting her share of attention right now. After a brief singing career and an attempt to be a martial arts movie star like her father and late brother Brandon, who was killed in a freak accident on a movie set in 1993, Shannon took over the Bruce Lee family business in 2000. She spent a decade making deals to buy back the rights to Bruce Lee’s name and image, primarily from Universal Pictures, where the property had languished after 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story.
While Shannon succeeded in recovering her father’s name, the company had some financial struggles, she told NextShark.com in December 2016: “We’re still trying to work on getting rid of that debt. It’s not been an easy journey, but it’s been super rewarding and super worthwhile.”
As the company made licensing deals for everything from movie posters to T-shirts to soda pop in the U.S., Shannon looked east. Her journey took her to China.
When Lee died suddenly in Hong Kong in 1973, the Chinese Communist government wanted nothing to do with him. Although some fans kept his memory alive and a Bruce Lee statue was erected on the Hong Kong harbor in 2005 to attract tourists, officially he was ignored.
Beginning around 2012, Shannon met with Chinese government officials who finally saw the value of exploiting Bruce Lee as a role model of a strong Chinese man who became a global movie star and cultural icon.
Soon there were plans for a $3 million Bruce Lee exhibit, talk of a Bruce Lee museum, and a deal to license his name for what became a 50-part series on the Chinese TV network CCTV about the life of Bruce Lee.
“Ms. Lee says she was eager to get the series off the ground after being told in China that ‘the two most beloved Chinese figures throughout the world are Confucius and Bruce Lee,’” The Wall Street Journal reported in 2009.
One behind-the-scenes supporter calls Tarantino, “the inverse of LeBron James these days.” James, who has business interests in China, has tried to make nice with the testy Chinese government after it suddenly canceled NBA programming because of a pro-Hong Kong tweet by Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey.
As for Tarantino, the Chinese never explicitly told him or Sony which scenes would have to be cut to get Once Upon a Time in Hollywood past censors, according to a source, but he wasn’t about to amend the movie after a past experience with Chinese censors.
The only one of Tarantino’s prior eight movies that came close to a real release in China was Django Unchained, to which the director made changes he found painful to satisfy censors. He toned down violence, in part by muting the color of blood, and trimming brief nudity.
On the day Django Unchained opened however, the censors still shut it down. “Cinemagoers who attended the abruptly suspended screenings wrote on Weibo—China’s version of Twitter—that the film had just begun to roll when it was stopped, and they were told to exit the theater,” The Hollywood Reporter wrote in 2013. A later release only grossed about $2 million.
This time Tarantino’s movie may also be a victim of global politics. “The situation obviously has gotten significantly worse in the context of Trump’s trade war,” says Stephen Saltzman, of the Paul Hastings law firm, who represents many Chinese firms, who is based in London. “It’s made it much more restrictive in terms of U.S. originated content. It’s made an already complex procedure and relationships inordinately more complex and more unpredictable.”
“The whole blowup with the NBA heightened the scrutiny on everybody there,” said another industry exec.
Unlike James, Tarantino stood up to the Chinese, say his fans. “He felt that the integrity of the film was more important than the money that might be made in the marketplace,” says an industry exec.
Sony Pictures Entertainment—after months of frustration with the secretive, politically directed Chinese censorship system—stood by Tarantino’s decision.
Tarantino and Sony were especially let down because they thought he finally had a movie that could be approved by China after all his other movies were deemed too full of violence or sex to show there.
“The thing about this movie is that it is his most emotional and his warmest film he has ever made,” says the exec. “The only violence is at the end. Otherwise it’s the least violent film he has made. That is why a lot of people were hopeful it would be shown in China.”
“It’s bad luck because it happened in a time of tension, of heightened sensitivities,” says another movie exec. “He’s an artist and it’s not like he’s being an asshole. It’s just him saying, ‘Wait a minute. Is this the film I made? I don’t want to bastardize that.”
One Sony exec still has thinks that it will eventually be shown in China—after it wins an Academy Award.