Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is filled with characters from American mythology. Beyond its primary protagonists — the men who played cowboys in movies past — there’s the murderous Manson Family, a collective bogey for those opposed to sixties counterculture. And there’s the murdered Sharon Tate, a venerated symbol of innocence lost during the decade. These figures are more than human, and in many ways, less than human, too. The side effect of elevating people to archetype, after all, is that they lose their humanity.
Such was the case for another mythological figure of the sixties who appears in Tarantino’s film: Bruce Lee. In the U.S., Lee came to be perceived as an eastern mystic and berserker golem, two ends of an invincible image he himself helped to perpetuate. But in Once Upon a Time, Lee is less the archetype of American popular consciousness and more, well, human. The portrayal has been met with mixed reviews. Shannon Lee, the martial artist’s daughter and chief executive of the Bruce Lee Family Co., called the performance “disheartening” and “unnecessary.” Tarantino, she believes, “seems to have gone out of the way to make fun of my father and to portray him as a kind of buffoon.” Shannon’s mother, Linda Lee Caldwell, dubbed the performance a “caricature” made to be “insultingly ‘Chinesey.’”
When I saw the character of Bruce Lee (played by actor Mike Moh) in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, my immediate reaction was to cry. Lee is my hero and has been since I first saw him, more than three decades ago, on a bootleg VHS my family borrowed from a local Asian grocer. My reverence for him grew as I got older, following him in movies like The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. I took inspiration from the Hong Kong–American’s struggle for acceptance in Hollywood, an industry that tended to ignore nonwhite faces. He was widely known to U.S. audiences as the sidekick Kato in the TV series The Green Hornet, a subordinate role standard for Asian males in Western cinema (something Jackie Chan and Jet Li would later learn the hard way when attempting their own incursions on these shores). But in China, where The Green Hornet was known as The Kato Show, Lee’s leading-man stardom only rose, catapulting his reputation in the States to that of an untouchable fighter from beyond. His career culminated in a starring part in the joint Hong Kong–American movie, Enter the Dragon, which premiered one month after his tragic death at age 32. By that time, Lee’s status in popular consciousness was iconic. There were dozens of imitators, but only one little dragon.
Lee’s scene in Once Upon a Time is brief but noteworthy, in so far as it veers away from this image of Lee as iconic. He appears on the set of The Green Hornet, which in Tarantino’s universe features protagonist-cowboy Rick Dalton, too. Surrounded by a crowd of crew members, Lee bides his time between takes by monologuing on the abilities of “colored” fighters Joe Louis and Cassius Clay. Lee would “cripple” Clay, he cockily tells his onlookers, should the two fighters ever find themselves opponents. In reality, Lee never claimed he could take Clay; rather, he was quoted as saying Clay would handily beat him up. Yet despite the historical inaccuracy, Moh nails Lee — his voice, his look, his mannerisms. Moh portrays Lee as arrogant (he was), didactic (yes), and hot-tempered (famously), embodying the spirit of a man who had to establish himself as smarter and stronger just to earn second-fiddle roles in a racist industry.
Listening from the sidelines during Lee’s speech is Rick Dalton’s stuntman, Cliff Booth, a pastiche of real-life men like Yakima Canutt and Hal Needham. Booth doesn’t think Lee could trounce Clay (or that Lee had to register his hands as “deadly weapons,” as he claimed), and Booth’s audible scoff makes as much clear. Lee responds by challenging Booth to a fight, and the stuntman agrees. At this point, Moh assumes the martial artist’s trademark fighting stance and begins firing off his familiar vocalizations. I don’t know whether he fought with such panache offscreen, but these are the affectations he assumed for his onscreen persona. This is the Bruce Lee we remember. It was at this point that I realized the audience members around me weren’t fighting back sentimental tears at the sight and sound of Lee like I was — they were laughing.
Growing up as a Chinese kid in a predominantly white area, one of the most common ways people mocked me was by mimicking the noises Lee made. The reaction to Moh’s performance — the chuckles that followed his impression of Lee — felt like a similarly racist gesture. In truth, until very recently, the vast majority of appearances by Asian characters in mainstream American films carried with them the same potential for unintended, racially motivated laughter. (Think: cartoonish figures like Pai Mei, played by Gordon Liu, or Long Duk Dong, played by Gedde Watanabe.) I was less concerned with Tarantino’s depiction of Lee or the outcome of the fight onscreen — Tarantino chose to have Cliff, a fictional member of the director’s Hollywood dream pantheon, best the supposedly unstoppable Lee by throwing him into a car — than with the hardwired reaction to his appearance. I have no doubt there was a portion of my audience laughing at Lee in exhilaration or with nostalgia, just as I have no doubt that the larger portion was laughing because they’ve been programmed to do so. Lee’s legacy, far from insulating him from a white audience’s mocking, actually focuses it.
In the days following Once Upon a Time’s release, it became clear that some people — maybe even some of the people I heard laughing in the theater — wished that Moh’s Lee had thrown Cliff into the sun, perhaps after dislocating all of his joints and ripping out his heart in the process. But I would argue Tarantino’s decision to have Booth fight Lee to a draw doesn’t doesn’t take the air out of Lee; it takes the air out of the constructed mystique that Lee was forced to maintain. That by allowing Lee to regain a portion of his humanity, Tarantino is offering a different, more generous kind of Asian-American representation onscreen. Watching Once Upon a Time, we are not operating under the fantasy that Lee never struggled against racism, or that he wasn’t forced into an outsider role in Hollywood. Here, Lee understands that his status depends on a carefully constructed reputation for supernatural indestructibility. At the end of his fight with Tarantino’s imaginary superhero, Moh’s Lee says “nobody beat the shit out of Bruce.” While some critics saw this as another example of Hollywood doing its best to humiliate an Asian legend, I see it as a man doing his best to hold on to the key to the kingdom.
In real life, when Roman Polanski learned his wife and three houseguests had been murdered, perhaps by a single person, he immediately suspected Lee. Who else, after all, could kill four people with his bare hands? Already, and in his lifetime, the sanctification of Lee’s legend was doing Lee no favors. So Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opted not to perpetuate that image, and instead turns Lee into one of Tarantino’s numerous objects of reclamation, otherwise stuck in our collective, sometimes poisonous American dreamworld. If Tarantino’s not entirely successful here, he has at least revealed the desperate lengths many will go to preserve the viability of an illusion. I am entirely empathetic with the Lee family’s concerns about Lee’s portrayal in this film — hearing audiences laugh for the wrong reasons at a loved one can only be a painful experience. But for me, if only me, watching this attempt to reconfigure a god as a man is as emotional a moment as any in the film. Lee could have quit, but he fought. His legend is amplified by his imperfections, not diminished.