This story contains minor spoilers about the plot of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
Shannon Lee, the daughter of legendary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee, was disheartened to see her late father being turned into a punchline in director Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and criticized the film’s portrayal of him as an “arrogant punching bag.”
“It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” she said in an interview with The Wrap on Monday.
The film, which premiered this past weekend, follows Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as washed-up actor Rick Dalton and his stunt double and friend Cliff Booth, as they navigate the changing movie industry in 1969. While Dalton and Booth are fictional characters, the movie contains many homages to the era and to real Hollywood figures. Chief among those connections, the film links Dalton and Booth’s storyline to the Manson murders.
In one of the movie’s controversial scenes, Bruce Lee (played by Korean American actor and martial artist Mike Moh) challenges Booth to a fight. The scene — in which Booth pummels Lee into a car, denting the vehicle — shows the audience that Booth is still a formidable stunt man, even though his and Dalton’s careers are on the decline.
Shannon Lee said that she understood why Tarantino — who has previously faced criticism for his depictions of race, gender and violence — portrayed her father this way. In the director’s signature style, the film contains many exaggerated scenes and offers an alternative history of the late ’60s.
“I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super bad-ass who could beat up Bruce Lee,” she told The Wrap. “But they didn’t need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive.”
She said that while the film “made my father into this arrogant punching bag,” the truth is that as a trailblazer for Asian stars in Hollywood, he “had to fight triple as hard as any of those people did to accomplish what was naturally given to so many others.”
When reached for comment, a representative for Moh told HuffPost that the actor was unavailable. A representative for Tarantino did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moh, who plays the only major character of color in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” has said that as a child, he idolized Bruce Lee.
“As a kid growing up in suburban Minnesota, I was one of the only Asian kids, so I was the class clown, and a big part of that was me wanting to fit in,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in May. “Then I saw Bruce Lee, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy can kick ass, the girls want him, he is super-strong and confident.’ I hadn’t seen someone like that before.”
Of his performance in the film, Moh commented in Men’s Health earlier this month, “Bruce is the GOAT. I’m not trying to be the next Bruce Lee. I’m just trying to do him justice.”
Lee biographer Matthew Polly also expressed concerns to The Wrap about the portrayal of Lee, contrasting it with the film’s less mocking takes on other real-life figures, such as actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). While much of the public perception of Tate focuses on either the circumstances of her death or her marriage to director Roman Polanski, the movie gives audiences a glimpse of her then-ascendant career in Hollywood.
“Given how sympathetic Tarantino’s portrayal of Steve McQueen, [Manson victim] Jay Sebring, and Sharon Tate is, I’m surprised he didn’t afford the same courtesy to Lee, the only non-white character in the film,” Polly told The Wrap. “He could have achieved the same effect — using Bruce to make Brad Pitt’s character look tough — without the mockery.”
Polly also had a theory as to why Tarantino took his version of Lee down a notch in the movie: “Lee’s introduction of Eastern martial arts to Hollywood fight choreography represented a threat to the livelihood of old Western stuntmen like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who were often incapable of adapting to a new era, and the film’s nostalgic, revisionist sympathies are entirely with the cowboys.”