Top Gun: Maverick, by far the biggest of this year’s blockbuster movies, brought a triumphant reprise for Tom Cruise as Pete Mitchell, nicknamed Maverick, more than 35 years after his debut in the 1986 original.
But Maverick mark two never made it to cinemas in China. Paramount Pictures, the studio behind the Top Gun sequel, hasn’t explained why the film was never shown. One rumour is that regulators weren’t happy with Maverick’s iconic bomber jacket, which features the Taiwanese and Japanese flags. The patches were digitally altered in a trailer for the film released in 2019 (“What does it say to the world when Maverick is scared of Chinese communists?” tweeted Republican Senator Ted Cruz on their initial omission) but they survived intact for the final cut. There was gossip that the flags were saved once Tencent, originally slated as an investor in the film, backed out.
Even without a contribution from the China market, Top Gun: Maverick has accumulated more than $1.3 billion in ticket sales worldwide to become the highest-grossing film of 2022 so far. After numerous cases in which American studios have tweaked their output in recognition of Chinese sensibilities, Maverick’s success was a reminder that “Hollywood does not always need the China market to score a hit,” claimed the South China Morning Post
But no matter, China has come up with its own Top Gun-esque action thriller to fill the gap.
Born to Fly, which stars heartthrob Wang Yibo in the lead role, follows a group of elite pilots in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chosen to test the nation’s most advanced aircraft.
The Global Times was excited, noting that the movie’s trailer showcases the country’s most advanced stealth fighter, the J-20.
“The film will present the power and speed of China’s latest fighter jets, as well as revealing the work and life of a test pilot, a representative of the contemporary PLA Air Force. Audiences will enjoy seeing a variety of China’s most cutting-edge fighter jets, including the J-20, J-16 and J-10C, on the big screen,” the newspaper celebrated.
A stealth fighter that features on the silver screen sounds like something of a contradiction, perhaps. But in fact, the J-20 has already made an appearance in cinemas in Sky Hunter in 2017. That film, also released for the National Day holidays in early October, was the directorial debut of actor-director Li Chen but a confusing storyline and weakly developed characters failed to fire audiences.
Judging from the trailer, Born to Fly has higher aspirations and it may also have taken some inspiration from its American equivalent.
In one instance rival aviators give one another a confrontational stare in scenes that resemble the rivalry between Maverick and Iceman (played by Val Kilmer) in the original Top Gun.
Early promotion of Wang’s role in the film helped Born to Fly secure some solid advanced ticket sales, with the movie set for release at the end of this month. According to cinema schedules already announced, theatre operators had allocated as many as 45% of their screens for it too.
But on Tuesday morning the movie’s official weibo account featured a statement saying that its release date will be postponed.
The delay was to “present better production effects,” it explained, apologising for any inconvenience caused.
The postponement has caught the industry by surprise, prompting much speculation as to why Born to Fly had been so suddenly grounded.
“Is it because of Covid measures? Did Wang Yibo get into some kind of trouble? Or did the film accidentally reveal a few military secrets?” one netizen wondered.
Cinemas operators admit that box office takings during the weeklong holiday, one of three favoured periods in which moviemakers want new releases, will feel the impact, especially as audiences have shown lesser interest in the other titles scheduled for the same time.
One of the alternatives on offer is Home Coming, which stars Zhang Yi and Wang Junkai. The drama, which was inspired by real events, tells the story of two members of staff at a Chinese embassy who risk their lives to help Chinese nationals trapped in a North African country. Interest in the movie has been muted, though, with the film collecting just Rmb6 million in pre-sales of tickets.
Another “main melody film” (that is, movies with patriotic themes) arriving over the holiday period is Ordinary Hero, backed by studio Bona Film.
Starring a series of A-listers in cameo performances such as Li Bingbing and Huang Xiaoming, it tells another supposedly real-life story of a seven year-old boy who breaks his arm and then travels across the country for an emergency operation.
It will compete against other patriotic fare including Steel Will, which tells the tale of the Communist Party’s steelmaking efforts in the late 1940s.
Hold the popcorn for that one, please.
“Despite the seemingly diverse subject matter, the films all share the same patriotic themes. As a result, there seems to be a lack of diversity for this holiday period. There’s nothing from the comedy and romance genres for audiences to choose,” Sohu Entertainment concluded sadly.
The irony of the trend towards more patriotically minded work from Chinese producers is that these films have generally fared poorly with audiences.
Certainly, nothing seems likely to show the staying power of the original Top Gun, which triggered a surge in enrolments in the US navy and air force.
Of course, a similar celebration of American military prowess was probably more than enough to torpedo the chances of this year’s follow-up being shown in Chinese cinemas.
But the franchise’s enduring appeal is also a reminder that, when it comes to competition for so-called ‘soft power’ in the entertainment world, Beijing still hankers for some of Hollywood’s magic.
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