“F9” star John Cena apologized to Chinese fans Tuesday after calling Taiwan a country in a promotional interview, but many viewers in the world’s largest film market have deemed his beseeching appeal for forgiveness insufficient.
Speaking with the Taiwanese news channel TVBS earlier this month, the professional wrestler — who has been learning Chinese for over a decade — said in Mandarin that Taiwan would be the “first country” able to watch the latest installment of the “Fast & Furious” franchise. The release in Taiwan was originally scheduled for May 18, three days before China and more than five weeks ahead of its June 25 U.S. debut, but it has been delayed indefinitely due to a worsening in local COVID-19 conditions.
Although self-ruled Taiwan has its own democratically elected government and split from China in 1949, Beijing still considers it a renegade province under its own jurisdiction, and it condemns references to the island as its own country as affronts to China’s claims of sovereignty.
On Tuesday, Cena posted both a written and video message apologizing for his words to TVBS on his official Weibo account.
In a subtitled, minute-long video message with awkward grammar but relatively good pronunciation, he said: “I must say now, for ‘F9,’ I have done many interviews — many, many many. So in one interview, I had one mistake… The ‘F9’ people gave me a lot of information, so a lot of interviews, a lot of information — I made one mistake.
“What I must say now is very, very, very, very, very, very important: I love and respect China and Chinese people. For my mistake, I really, really apologize. Sorry, sorry, I really apologize. You must understand, I really love and really respect China and Chinese people. I’m sorry.”
It remains to be seen whether his comments about Taiwan will result in a Chinese boycott of “F9” or authorities pulling it from screens altogether.
In recent months, Beijing has pulled the plug on major films for even lesser offenses thought to insult the country. In December, it pulled “Monster Hunter” from screens after just a single day in theaters over an interpretation of a three-line joke, and in March quietly cancelled the screening of Chloé Zhao’s Oscar-winning “Nomadland” altogether because of a since-deleted interview eight years ago.
Despite all of Cena’s “very’s” and “really’s,” his plea doesn’t appear to have cleared his name.
Some fans have defended him by saying he’s been interested in China for years, since he began to learn Mandarin long before he had much business in the country. Others say it’s hard for foreigners to understand the country. But most of the top responses to his message slammed his mea culpa as too vague to be worth anything.
“Please say ‘Taiwan is a part of China’ in Chinese, otherwise we will not accept,” said the top response, which received some 7,500 likes.
Many called him “two-faced,” accusing him of saying one thing in Taiwan to Taiwanese fans and another in China.
“Even if you don’t understand China, OK, then when you apologize, you should make clear what you got wrong. Was it just a grammatical error? He doesn’t even dare recognize the ‘One China’ principle on Chinese Weibo — so who knows what he actually thinks about it,” read another post that had garnered nearly 2,000 likes.
“F9” debuted in China last Friday to a three-day $137 million weekend, accounting for 83% of China’s total weekend box office, according to data from consultancy Artisan Gateway. As of early morning Wednesday local time, the film has grossed a total of $155 million (RMB996 million), according to the Maoyan.
The platform currently forecasts that it will go on to gross a total of $232 million (RMB1.49 billion) over its full China run, down significantly from its earliest prediction of $337 million (RMB2.17 billion). The last two “Fast & Furious” franchise films grossed far more in China than in the U.S.
Cena — known in China as Zhao Xina (赵喜娜), a Chinese name that sounds like his English one — had posted short, daily Chinese-language videos to Weibo to promote “F9” for the entire month leading up to its China opening day, singing a short ditty in each.
“I feel great, because tomorrow — tomorrow! — you can watch ‘F9’ in theaters!” he said, before counting down to his song: “In just one day, in one day, ‘F9’!” Viewers had responded very positively.
Universal Pictures abruptly cancelled a major promotional event for the film in Shanghai last Tuesday, May 18, due to an unspecified security “threat.” At a virtual press conference held in its stead, Vin Diesel said that he had asked Universal to release “F9” in China first as a way of thinking Chinese fans.