By: Mie Murasa
Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood had only just hit the cinemas when Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon had to call out Tarantino for portraying her father as an “arrogant a**hole”. The caricature was bad enough to make the Asian community feel outraged at the way Tarantino ridiculed him, however this may have only been the tip of the ice berg.
Set in 1960’s LA, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s ninth film and his first film not to have links with Harvey Weinstein. For many film-goers and fans this film would have been momentous without doubt. With an all star cast and Tarantino as director it certainly seemed like a must watch for me as a fan of the Kill Bill films. However, when it came to light that the director’s new film may have not been respectful to Martial Arts legend Bruce Lee, I began to have second thoughts. In the film Lee is shown trying to challenge people to fights in an arrogant way, which worried many about what this would do to his legacy. Furthermore, Tarantino had failed to consult Shannon before including him in a way she would not have agreed with. Ironically, the films recount of the old days of Hollywood seemed more stuck in the past than intended.
Bruce Lee remains a highly important role model to Asian children around the globe. Tackling racism in his career and being a pillar of Asian representation in an industry which was then, so scarce of it. After Crazy Rich Asians many felt that the path for change in the industry had begun to develop, yet Tarantino’s new film feels regurgitated from the older days in Hollywood where Asian characters were used for light humour and to add an “exotic” flare. Lee is not only portrayed negatively in terms of personality but was originally planned to be shown being beaten up by white character (played by Brad Pitt) much to the crew and Pitts concern. This almost seems reminiscent of white characters overcoming Asian “villains” in Hollywood movies and emasculating Asian men as undesirable. Something we all thought we’d resigned to the past.
Tarantino has since excused his direction suggesting that, “Bruce Lee was kind of an arrogant guy”. Some may find it questionable that so often a leading man’s arrogance or confidence in the entertainment industry is praised that when an Asian man shows these traits it is open to criticism.
Immediately however, I was disappointed that this slight on Lee’s name came from Tarantino, a man who has profited off and claimed to respect the many forms of martial arts and cultures deriving from Asia in his Kill Bill films. He even modelled the Brides costume in Kill Bill of Lee’s iconic yellow jumpsuit. You wouldn’t be blamed in hoping that he would show some respect to the man who created Jeet Kune Do. At best this is ignorance and at worst racism. It truly seems a shame that Tarantino (who is known for detailed and challenging action scenes) couldn’t have harnessed both Lee’s reputation of immense skill and the actor (who played him) Mike Moh’s talent as a fifth-degree black belt in American Taekwondo. This would have given a modern day Asian Martial Artist and actor a chance to shine.
What worries many about the film, is not only the toxic images it promotes of the icon himself and of the Asian community, but the reaction that Tarantino may have intended to be drawn out of the audience as a result of Lees ridicule. His daughter Shannon described how it, “was really uncomfortable to sit in the theatre and listen to people laugh at my father”. This instantly reminded me of the real-life scene in the movie Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story. Which showed how Bruce felt at the theatre hearing others laugh at the racist Japanese caricature played by Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In the past mockery of Asian characters blighted the way in which Asians could experience cinema and by now Hollywood should have moved on from using PoC for cheap laughs. What worries me most is the idea that the Asian community now will feel the same way Lee did back then. Only this time a real Asian actor will be used and a real human beings’ legacy will be discredited.
Despite all this, one thing that I have found to be positive is the way in which Shannon Lee refuses to tolerate such treatment of her father. Shannon knows the importance her father’s legacy still holds for not only Asians but people around the world. By showing a talented Asian man as arrogant and unkind to stuntmen, Tarantino could have discredited not only the image of an idol like Lee but the Asian community as a whole, for whom Lee acted as a sole representative for many years back in the old days of Hollywood. Thankfully as Shannon shares her views on the film whether through magazine or television interviews, she is frequently supported by her interviewers who similarly recognise not only Lee’s talent but his impact. Shannon herself has stated how she has dedicated her life to further his legacy. Perhaps what we should take from the incident is not the negative impact that Tarantino could have had on Lee’s image but the way an Asian-American woman fights for her father and her community, defending Lee’s legacy in a way in which he would surely be proud.
Mie is a Japanese-English Sixth Form student living in the UK. She enjoys writing and aspires to be a journalist after going to University. In her spare time she enjoys travelling and learning more about her two cultures.