Classic '80s action flick Top Gun is back with a sequel. But for all its soaring aerial maneuvers, the most daring stunt may be a middle finger to China.
To the joy of Taiwanese audiences hitting the theaters this week, Top Gun: Maverick features a prominent shot of the Japanese and Taiwanese flags—national symbols that were scrubbed from a 2019 trailer.
The flags were initially replaced by random symbols, drawing sharp criticism as an example of Hollywood caving in to China’s political demands. But in a rare U-turn, which has yet to be explained, they have reappeared in the film’s worldwide release.
“It is unprecedented,” Ho Siu Bun, a film critic in Hong Kong, told VICE World News. “Major film studios have never been shy about pandering to the Chinese market. And even if it is a simple scene, editing is very costly. So no one knows why they changed it back.”
Tom Cruise plays Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, who in the 1986 original wore a bomber jacket featuring a patch with the flags of Taiwan, Japan, the U.S. and the United Nations. The patch commemorates a U.S. battleship’s tour of Japan, Taiwan, and the Western Pacific in 1963-1964.
In a trailer of the sequel, he was seen in the same iconic jacket, but with the two flags replaced, sparking controversy in 2019.
The Taiwanese flag would not fly with Chinese censors, as Beijing sees any recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty as a challenge to its own. China considers the self-ruled democratic island as part of its territory and has boycotted companies, including Gap and Marriott, for implying Taiwan as a separate country in their products. Apple has censored the Taiwan flag emoji for iPhone users in China and the Chinese special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
As China’s Tencent Pictures initially joined Paramount Pictures as an investor and a marketing partner of the film, many saw the flags’ removal from the trailer as further evidence of Chinese influence in foreign film production. The company did not explain at the time why the Taiwanese and Japanese flags were cut.
But the Chinese firm has backed out of the deal over concerns that Chinese leaders might be upset by its association with the film, whose production involves the U.S. Department of Defense and is effectively American military propaganda, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.
The blockbuster has not been given a release date in China, the world’s biggest movie box office worth $7.3 billion as of 2021.
Meanwhile, at the movie premiere in Taiwan, the audiences cheered and clapped at the unexpected sight of their national flag, the Central News Agency of Taiwan reported. Some people even flocked to buy copies of the jacket, which is being sold at the price of $1,449.
“To be honest, Tom doesn’t necessarily have to wear the same jacket in the opening scene. There’s no way film producers didn’t know the Republic of China flag would cross the Chinese Communist Party’s red line,” a Taiwanese film writer, who goes by the moniker Knee Joint, wrote on Facebook. Republic of China is the official name of Taiwan. “But they still did it anyway.”
Moviegoers in China, on the other hand, were not impressed. “Fine, don’t take our money. We will watch the pirated version,” a commentator said on Chinese social media Weibo.
The highly-anticipated film has been in the wings for more than three years, but its release has been repeatedly delayed due to the pandemic. In the film, Tom Cruise is back in the cockpit as Maverick, a top aviator in the Navy, to train graduates for a special assignment and confront the ghosts of his past. Already taking off in theaters, the title is expected to earn more than $180 million in the global box office this weekend, setting a new record in Cruise’s career.
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