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China bans Tarantino blockbuster over portrayal of martial artist Bruce Lee

Kristian Dyer

First, China gave the NBA the cold shoulder. Now, the country is doing the same to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

The country has blocked release of his “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” slated for next week, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Given the country’s appetite for Western movies, the film was expected to garner tens of millions of dollars in sales, pushing the global box office tally "past the $400 million mark."

The film, set in 1969 in Los Angeles, features Leonardo DiCaprio as a television star and Brad Pitt as a stunt man, adjusting to what was at the time a changing film industry.

At issue is the portrayal of Bruce Lee, whom Pitt's character encounters in the film. Played by Mike Moh (who was in “School Dance” and had a recurring role in “Empire”), Lee is depicted in the fim as cocky and arrogant.

A martial artist of Chinese descent who was born in San Francisco, Lee acted in films and TV shows from "Fist of Fury" to "Green Hornet" before his death in 1973 at age 32. His daughter, Shannon Lee, made a direct appeal to China’s National Film Administration, asking that it demand changes to her father's portrayal, according to the Hollywood Reporter, which cited sources it didn't identify.

The film has also drawn criticism domestically. Former NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a close personal friend of Lee, wrote in the Hollywood Reporter that he was torn over the film.

While an admitted fan of Tarantino’s work, he said that Lee’s portrayal is demeaning and handled in a “sloppy and somewhat racist way.” The Basketball Hall of Famer personally remembers Lee’s fight to open for more authentic portrayals of Asians on film.

“During our years of friendship, he spoke passionately about how frustrated he was with the stereotypical representation of Asians in film and TV,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “The only roles were for inscrutable villains or bowing servants.”

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Tarantino’s depiction of Lee, Abdul-Jabbar says, runs counter to the responsibility directors have when portraying historic figures “to maintain a basic truth about the content of their character.”

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