The Untold Story Behind the Mysterious Disappearance of Fan Bingbing, the World’s Biggest Movie Star
Vanity Fair, Mar. 26, 2019
Fan Bingbing has been mostly staying at home these days, sending messages on WeChat (the Chinese WhatsApp), working on her English, receiving guests, doing charity work “to wash away her sins,” and otherwise “trying to stay positive,” according to a producer who knows her well. But before the events of last spring, when she abruptly disappeared from public view for three months, she was busy being the most famous actress in China, which is to say, the most famous actress in the world.
Fan is China’s highest-paid female star, with a net worth estimated at $100 million. Her 62.9 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter, rivals the total membership of the Communist Party. Among her fans, her classical “melon seed” face—widely viewed in China as a Platonic ideal of beauty—has inspired countless acts of copycat surgery. She is often described as baifumei, a phrase meaning pale-skinned, rich, and beautiful. “The rules of Chinese beauty are rigid, and she follows them,” says Elijah Whaley, a market researcher who specializes in China. Fan has been the face of Adidas, Louis Vuitton, and Moët, selling everything from lipstick to diamonds. They say you can’t take a good selfie with her, because she will suck all the beauty away. Her fame has caught the attention of Hollywood: This year, after appearances in the Iron Man and X-Men franchises, she was slated to begin filming an international spy thriller alongside Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz, and Lupita Nyong’o.
The trouble began last year, on May 28, when Fan was flying to Los Angeles with her retinue (including a friend who reportedly got work done to look like her). On Weibo, a famed TV host named Cui Yongyuan posted two versions of Fan’s contract for an upcoming film titled Cell Phone 2. One put her salary at $7.8 million; the other at $1.5 million. The implication was clear: Fan had fraudulently declared the smaller sum to the Chinese tax authorities, to avoid paying taxes on the rest. The contracts were redacted in parts, but you could still make out a faint trace of the famous Fan name.
At first no one thought anything of it. For starters, everyone knew that Cui, a household name in China, had an ongoing feud with the makers of Cell Phone 2. (The film was a sequel to Cell Phone, China’s highest-grossing movie of 2003, which starred Fan as the mistress of a character who bore a striking resemblance to Cui.) Besides, the hiss of gossip always trails stars like Fan. If you were to believe the Hong Kong tabloids, Fan’s brother Chengcheng is actually her illegitimate son. (They are 19 years apart.) Fan was said to have gotten her upper lip surgically enhanced, her chin shaved, the fat from her thighs removed. She was dating this rich guy. No, she was dating this other rich guy. In fact, there was a set price for a night with her: 2 million yuan, or $300,000. It said so in a booklet that supposedly lists the going rates of all other A-list actresses.
So there was every reason to think that the ado over Cell Phone 2 would come and go, just like any other celebrity gossip. But 12 hours later, when Fan landed at LAX, the world seemed to have turned against her.
Fan was born after the death of Mao Zedong, and has lived her entire life governed by the go-go brand of capitalism introduced by his successor, Deng Xiaoping. At 37, she belongs to the first generation that had been allowed to amass private wealth under the informal slogan “Let some people get rich first.” Still, with many Chinese earning pre-reform salaries of less than $10,000 a year, fans were shocked to learn how much Fan could command for only four days of work. “Most people were astonished,” says Ming Beaver Kwei, who produced the Fan vehicle Sophie’s Revenge. “People knew she made money, but they didn’t know it was that much money.” Even worse, Fan had tried to shirk her civic duty by trying to keep most of her morally suspect gains for herself.
Fan’s production company immediately issued a statement denying the charges and informing Cui that they had retained the services of a Beijing law firm. Cui apologized to Fan and retracted his accusation. But by then it was already a national scandal. A week later, on June 4, the central tax authorities deputized the local tax bureau in Jiangsu, the coastal province where Fan’s company was registered, to launch an investigation. Shares of companies associated with Fan plunged by 10 percent, the maximum daily limit on the Chinese stock market. Three days later, Chinese censors banned all stories on the Internet about taxes, films, and Fan.
The movie industry at large also fell under scrutiny. On June 27, five government agencies, including film and tax authorities, issued a joint directive capping salaries for on-screen talent at 40 percent of a movie’s total production budget. Individual stars, meanwhile, would not be allowed to earn more than 70 percent of a production’s total wages for actors. The notice chastised the industry for “distorting social values” and encouraging the “growing tendency towards money worship” through the “blind chasing of stars.”
At first, Fan tried to maintain her normal routine. She attended a Celine Dion concert, made a trip to Tibet for charity, and visited a children’s hospital in Shanghai. Then, in the first week of July, she canceled a meeting with a production company, informing them that she had been placed under house arrest.
One night, amid the scandal, Fan went out to dinner with her best friend, the director Li Yu. As they were driving home, Li recalled, Fan reached for her hand and held it tightly. Li was surprised: Fan had never done that before, through their four movies and 12 years of friendship. Fan didn’t say anything, because she herself didn’t know what lay ahead.
Two days later, Fan Bingbing, the most famous woman in China, whose primary job is being seen by the public, vanished without a trace.
It is hard to convey Fan’s appeal, because there is no star in Hollywood quite like her. She combines the glamour of Nicole Kidman, the sunniness of Julia Roberts, the pluck of Jennifer Lawrence, and the box-office draw of Sandra Bullock. In Beijing, she is the literal girl next door: nearly everyone I met claimed to be her neighbor. A lawyer told me that her house was next to his at Star River, a gated community protected by razor wire. An actor said he often saw her black S.U.V. parked in front of his apartment building.
Fan was raised in the port city of Yantai, overlooking the Korean Bay. Her grandfather was a general in the naval air force, and her grandmother gave her the Chinese character bing, or “ice,” to honor the family’s ties to the sea. Fan grew up watching her father, a pop singer, perform at regional competitions. Her mother was a dancer and an actress. Both were party committee members and served as cadres in the cultural division of the local port authority. When Fan’s middle-school teacher suggested she take up music, they bought her a piano and a flute. The family was poor. Young Fan knew this: when she was in a car crash, at age 14, the first thing she did was try to protect the flute. (She still has it to this day.)
Fan spent the next three months recuperating in a hospital, where she watched a Taiwanese drama about Wu Zetian, a consort who rose to become empress during the Tang dynasty. Empress Wu gave Fan the dream of becoming an actress. (Twenty years later, she would produce and star in a TV series about Wu.) She entered a performing-arts school in Shanghai, where she was the youngest of 40 in her class. Sharing a tiny room with seven other students, she struggled to get by on a monthly allowance of $60. On rough days, she sustained herself on a single meat bun or bowl of beef noodle soup.
Through a school play, Fan met a producer who cast her as a chambermaid in an 18th-century costume drama. My Fair Princess aired in April 1998, when Fan was 16 years old. The show became a cultural phenomenon and catapulted her to stardom.
Because Fan has been China’s sweetheart for two decades, younger fans feel as though they have grown up alongside her, a sort of Emma Watson for Chinese millennials. A Chinese-language student told me she learned Mandarin by watching Fan in My Fair Princess. Another showed me a photo of a crane-pattern dress she had ordered on Taobao (the Chinese version of eBay), a knockoff of what Fan wore to Cannes.
Nearly all of the people I spoke with who had worked with Fan—English teachers, dialogue coaches, designers, lawyers, film executives, producers, directors, and fellow actors—told me she was kind, and impossible to hate. “She so much cares about the people working for her and treats them really well,” said Fang Li, who has produced several of Fan’s films. “Not many actresses are like Fan Bingbing. She is so strong, spiritually. She can take a lot of pressure, and still smile.”
Daniel Junior Furth, who taught English to Chinese actors, called Fan “ultra-kind and pleasant.” Even though she was always surrounded by people he felt were more important than he was, Furth said, Fan made sure he “never got that sense of being neglected or put off to the side, which is rare in a society that is so hierarchical.” Once, she called him up to say she had front-row tickets to a play at the national theater. Would he like to come? Afterward, she asked her driver to take Furth home. “There was no stunt about it,” he recalled. It was just a nice thing that Fan had done.
Fan is also, by all accounts, a very hard worker. She runs her own acting school, production company, and cosmetics line, sleeping only four hours a night. Kwei, the producer, recalled a rock-climbing sequence Fan shot for Sophie’s Revenge. Fan showed up with a raging fever. Kwei offered to reschedule. Fan said no, they should keep going. She was O.K. to climb, she said, but they would have to dub her voice in post, because she was too ill to speak. “We worked through the night,” Kwei told me.
In 2015, a reporter asked Fan whether she was going to follow custom and marry rich. “I don’t need to marry rich,” she replied in a now oft-repeated rejoinder. “I am rich.” (“People were like, Bitch, wow,” a young fan recalled.) Her brashness earned her the nickname “Fan Ye”—something akin to Master Fan, a title usually reserved for men. “She is like a strong man inside,” said Fang, the producer. “But outside she is like a pretty girl.”
Fan’s image as the country’s kindest, hardest-working actress only made her sudden disappearance that much more surprising—and terrifying—to the film industry in China. In the month after she was engulfed in scandal, shares in publicly listed movie companies in China fell by an average of 18 percent.
Last summer, after Fan stopped appearing in public and posting on social media, the entire world began speculating about her whereabouts. On August 28, Fan’s fiancé was seen in a promotional video without his engagement ring, and the Internet drew its own conclusions. Five days later, unverified tweets claimed that Fan, after seeking counsel from Jackie Chan, had landed in Los Angeles to request asylum. Chan quickly denied the rumor that same day. Fan’s birthday, September 16, came and went. Montblanc dropped her as brand ambassador. So did Chopard and Swisse, an Australian vitamin company.
Then, on October 3, Fan reappeared as suddenly as she had vanished. According to the South China Morning Post, she had been held under a form of detention known as “residential surveillance,” at a holiday resort in a suburb of Jiangsu. The system was instituted in 2012, under President Xi Jinping, making it legal for the Chinese secret police to detain anyone charged with endangering state security or committing corruption and hold them at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to lawyers or family members. Sources close to Fan told me that she had been picked up by plainclothes police. While under detention, she was forbidden to make public statements or use her phone. She wasn’t given a pen or paper to write with, nor allowed any privacy, even when taking showers.
After her release, Fan issued an obsequious apology on social media. Saying she had endured “an unprecedented amount of pain,” she said she felt “ashamed and guilty” for not “setting a good example for society and the industry.” She went on: “Today I’m facing enormous fears and worries over the mistakes I made! I have failed the country, society’s support and trust, and the love of my devoted fans! I offer my sincere apology here once again! I beg for everyone’s forgiveness!” She concluded with a reference to a popular Chinese song from the 1950s: “Without the party and the state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing!”
That same day, tax authorities reported that Fan had declared only a third of her $4.4 million salary for Air Strike, a Chinese action film starring Bruce Willis. The movie’s release was canceled, and a warrant was issued for one of its investors. Fan’s longtime agent, a former nightclub manager named Mu Xiaoguang, was found destroying the company books and was taken into custody. Fan was ordered to pay $131 million in back taxes and penalties—including $70 million from her personal funds. (In fact, Fang told me, Fan wound up paying only $2 million of her own money, which she raised by borrowing funds and selling off properties.) It could have been worse. Until 2009, first-time tax offenders in China could be charged with criminal liability. And until 2011, economic crimes such as tax evasion were punishable by death.
The harsh treatment of China’s biggest star sent a clear signal to everyone in the Chinese film industry: the boom days of the past were coming to an end. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, actors and actresses were renamed “film workers” in an effort to cut “capitalist connections and remold them into socialist citizens,” according to Sabrina Qiong Yu, a scholar of Chinese film. For decades, film workers received salaries on par with factory workers, and most movies were imported from Hollywood. By 2000, the Chinese film industry was producing fewer than 100 movies a year—and only two dozen or so were shown in one of the country’s 8,000 theaters. The rest were stored at the national granary, in climate-uncontrolled archives.
Then, after 2010, the government decided there was big money to be made in movies. State banks began to finance mergers and acquisitions, and China’s studios went on a buying bender. They snapped up the U.S. theater chain AMC, tried to purchase Dick Clark Productions, which produces the Golden Globes, and signed major financing deals with Sony Pictures, Universal, Fox, and Lionsgate. In total, the deals added up to $10 billion, heavily financed by state-backed banks. Today the Chinese film industry produces more than 800 films a year, and China will soon overtake the United States as the world’s largest film market. For the past four years, China has been building 25 new movie screens every day.
Because show business is still so new in China—it’s been only 20 years since private companies have been allowed to make movies—there aren’t many bankable stars who can guarantee box-office success. As a result, A-list actors like Fan Bingbing were able to command top dollar: it was not uncommon for as much as 90 percent of a film’s production budget to go toward on-screen talent. “We are in the golden age of Hollywood, where the star is key,” said a Chinese film executive who asked not to be identified.
Last year, after Fan turned down the role of the Chinese oceanographer in The Meg, a sci-fi thriller produced by Warner Bros., the studio considered Tang Wei and Jing Tian before deciding on Li Bingbing. “It’s a very short list,” said the same executive, who was involved in the film. Fan seemed poised to become that impossible thing: a star who can appease fans in the three Chinas—mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong—as well as Hollywood studios, and their sudden desire for Asian faces.
The star-dependent culture was on full display at a DVD store in Beijing where I bought pirated copies of Fan’s movies. Discs were organized not by title or category but by actor. Nicolas Cage, Tom Hanks, Tom Hardy, and Jason Statham all received the full-row treatment. Nicole Kidman, whom many Chinese consider a vision of unimpeachable beauty, also got her own row. Others—Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, even Meryl Streep—were relegated to a row seemingly reserved for miscellaneous white actresses.
In the years that the Chinese film industry was allowed to grow unregulated, it became common for stars to falsify contracts to avoid paying taxes on the huge sums that they were commanding. That’s why Fan’s sudden fall sent a chill through the rest of the film world. “There was a certain surprise in the industry,” said Kwei, the producer. “Fan Bingbing was only doing the usual standard package.” David Unger, Gong Li’s manager, put it more bluntly. “The big error,” he said, “was that she was caught.”
Fan’s disappearance, and the subsequent crackdown, was the result of larger forces at play: After years of double-digit growth, the Chinese economy is slowing down. The government claims that economic output grew by 6.5 percent last year—the lowest rate in more than a decade—but observers believe the rate is as low as 2 percent. With consumer spending slowing and foreign investment plunging in the midst of a trade war, the government is seeking to redirect economic power back under state control. It won’t be long, many in China predict, before the tax scandal bleeds into other sectors. What happened to Fan was merely the “primary incision,” says Alex Zhang, executive director of Zhengfu Pictures. Soon, the authorities will “cut all the way down to the rest of the business community.”
In March 2018, President Xi established the National Supervision Commission, granting it sweeping powers to investigate corruption and tax evasion. Suspects could now be legally kidnapped, interrogated, and held for as long as six months. That same month, he also gave the Central Publicity Department, which heads up propaganda efforts, the authority to regulate the film industry. (The only other time film was put under the propaganda ministry, according to industry insiders, was during the Cultural Revolution.) Films that had passed the censors years ago have now been retroactively banned. “That liminal space where you can get away with stuff, that’s gone,” said Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese culture at U.C.L.A.
Under Xi’s crackdown, tens of thousands of people have disappeared into the maw of the police state. An eminent TV news anchor was taken away hours before going on air. A retired professor with views critical of the government was dragged away during a live interview on Voice of America. A billionaire was abducted from his private quarters in the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. Other high-profile disappearances include Interpol president Meng Hongwei in September, photojournalist Lu Guang in November, two Canadians who went missing in December, as well as the writer Yang Hengjun, who went missing in January. “The message being sent out is that nobody is too tall, too big, too famous, too pretty, too whatever,” said Steve Tsang, who runs the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Taken together, Xi’s moves represent a dramatic rollback of the economic reforms and relative freedom that enabled the film industry to flourish in the time before his reign. “Deng Xiaoping kept everyone together by promising to make them rich,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director of Amnesty International. “What keeps things together under Xi is fear. Fear of the system, where no matter how high you are, from one day to the next you can disappear.”
When I arrived in Beijing, just before Christmas, everyone in the film industry seemed to be in a state of panic. The tax authorities had issued a directive calling for all film companies to do ziwo piping, or “self-criticism,” and “rectify themselves” by paying the back taxes they owed on unreported income before December 31. Those who paid up would not be fined. Starting in the new year, however, there would be “heavy, random checks,” and those who were caught would be “dealt with seriously.”
The authorities also declared that special tax zones, which had allowed stars to pay lower taxes, were no longer legal. Following the proverb “The mountains are tall and the emperor is far away,” many film studios had registered in these special zones, far from the major coastal cities. Tax rates in the zones could be as low as 0.15 percent. Now, overnight, those working in the film industry would be taxed at the highest rate—45 percent. And all this was to be paid for not only 2018 but also for the two previous fiscal years, dating back to January 2016.
The rising fear was palpable on WeChat, where people were sharing ad hoc formulas meant to help calculate how much tax they owed in lieu of any official guidelines. Many faced staggering sums that dwarfed Fan’s tax bill. Open letters protesting the yidaoqie, or “one knife chop” approach, of the tax bureau made the rounds before being taken down.
Because of Fan’s clout in the industry, the probe of her finances had incriminated many companies that were partnering with her on projects. Scores of films have been put on hold. “Everyone you can think of is dealing with taxes right now,” said Kwei, the producer. Many had either already been “invited for tea” at the tax bureau, or were awaiting their turn. Others were rushing to meet with their accountants, or were holed up in their offices reviewing past budget sheets. Victoria Mao, who runs a production company, told me that all of her projects had been put on hold just days earlier, after she received a call from the tax bureau asking her to self-audit. “We don’t have any time to go forward,” she said, “because we have to go back.”
People were even more reticent than usual to talk on the phone. “We are not the only people on the line, so to speak,” producer Andre Morgan told me, before suggesting we meet at his hotel. Morgan, who is widely credited for introducing Jackie Chan to Hollywood, described how things have changed since he came to China in 1972. “There weren’t that many rules back then,” he said. Now the bureaucracy is catching up with the industry. As he sees it, the people aren’t afraid of the state—the state is afraid of the people. That’s why the government singled out and punished a select few, like Fan—to keep everyone else in line. Morgan quoted a Chinese proverb: the state is “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” (He also said, in a burst of animal metaphors, that it is only a matter of time before “the chickens come home to roost,” and that the government is doing whatever it can to “catch the mouse.”)
After the government issued the new tax directive, screenwriters had protested to the authorities, who in turn agreed to tax income on original screenplays at only 16 percent, the maximum rate on intellectual property. This enraged directors, who were being taxed the full 45 percent for their work. If a completed movie is not intellectual property, they demanded, then what is? “What is culture?” wondered Fan’s producer, Fang Li, who himself owed $1.7 million in taxes. “What is intellectual property?” The tax authorities, it seemed, had thrown the film industry into a state of existential crisis.
My first Saturday in Beijing, I attended a dinner at the home of an actor. Dinner begins early in the city, and by the time I arrived, at seven P.M., the ayah had already put out dishes of pork belly, cured beef, tofu curds, lotus root, and chicken feet. And those were only the dishes I could discern.
Before we sat down to eat, the actor, who had moved in only two days before, offered to give his guests a tour of the multi-million-dollar home. We walked past a Japanese rock garden and a patio that opens up to a sweeping view of the city that was at once dystopian and weirdly beautiful. Because the house was shaped like a spaceship, and because I had fallen into a jet-lagged sleep the night before watching a dubbed version of the new Blade Runner, and because I was about to eat dishes I would never learn the names of, I felt like I had been transported into the future. Fan, predictably, was said to be living “just three houses down.”
The dinner party consisted entirely of film people. It’s a socially incestuous community, where everyone either went to the same film school, or belongs to the same agency, or lives in the same gated community. Even those who were meeting for the first time that evening discovered they had many friends in common, and bonded quickly.
The first bottle of the night was a Merlot from a Bordeaux winery that Zhao Wei, Fan’s co-star from My Fair Princess, had purchased for an estimated $6.4 million in 2011. Now Zhao, who had recently been banned from the stock market for misleading investors, was rushing to pay her back taxes before the December 31 deadline. As we moved on to more expensive wine, the talk turned to other colleagues who were scrambling to raise money to pay their back taxes—selling cars, mortgaging homes, taking out loans. A director said he owed $29,000. An actor responded by saying he owed $73,000.
Was anyone angry? “If we get angry, we are done,” explained the actor’s agent, who was the only one not drinking with abandon. “You can’t make movies anymore. We have just the one government.” People, he added, were “not mad, but confused.” The informal rules that had governed the industry for decades were changing, which was unnerving. Even worse, no one seemed to know what the new rules were. Meanwhile, the government was “taking money from your pocket.” But what could you do?
Around one in the morning, after our host had passed out in one of the guest rooms, a neighbor complained about the noise we were making with the newly installed sound system. The same neighbor, the agent told me, had complained the night before. That party had also gone on for hours, with interminable talk of tax woes over interminable glasses of baijiu.
In 2015, Fan told the South China Morning Post that she had no guanxi, or connections, in show business. “In China, to be successful, it is often not enough to have talent and earn merit,” she said. “Some guanxi is almost always necessary. But when I walked into the entertainment industry, my family had no guanxi. So I knew I had to risk failure and bear the consequences alone.”
It’s a Cinderella story worthy of Hollywood. In fact, however, Fan had the ultimate guanxi—her family’s longtime involvement in the Communist Party. Throughout her career, Fan has continued to be openly friendly with the authorities. Indeed, two of the biggest awards she’s received—the Hundred Flower and the Golden Rooster—represent “official opinion from the government,” according to Gao Yitian, a producer who runs the First International Film Festival. Fan’s tax breaches were not especially egregious. But she had the money to pay, says Zhang, the film executive. And most important, he adds, the government “knew she is smart enough to cooperate.”
“That’s what happens here,” said Michael Gralapp, an entertainment recruiter who has consulted for a subsidiary of China Central Television. “You play ball, or you are screwed. So you play ball.”
Like many movie stars, Fan is famous more for the iconic traits she embodies than for her talents on-screen. (“When she is with a great director,” one publicist says, “she’s a great actress.”) In 2013, she made a China-only cameo as an unnamed nurse in Iron Man 3, a role that earned her the disparaging epithet of “flower vase”—a pretty prop in a Hollywood production. But the movie went on to make $121 million in China, and Hollywood took note. In 2014, Fan landed a bigger role in X-Men: Days of Future Past, as the teleporting superheroine Blink. She was also nominated for a Golden Horse Award, the Chinese equivalent of an Oscar, for her starring role in I Am Not Madame Bovary.
As her fame spread, Fan always made sure to stay in the good graces of the Communist Party. In 2017, she appeared in Sky Hunter, directed by Li Chen, to whom she is now engaged. Like Top Gun, the film is an unabashed work of military propaganda. In one scene, Fan appears in a bomber-pilot outfit, wielding an ax and running to save a boy and his mother. As the building disappears beneath their feet,
Fan gets them to a helicopter just in time.
For the most part, Chinese films that have done well in the West have been either art-house pictures like Raise the Red Lantern or martial-arts movies in the tradition of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. (Ang Lee, whose Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time in the U.S., was born in Taiwan.) Until recently, Fan has selected her roles with an eye not for potential exposure in Hollywood but for how she will be received at home. Her beauty, too, appeals to the domestic market. Taoists have long considered outer beauty—from “eyebrows like faraway mountains” to “feet like bamboo shoots carved in jade”—inexorably linked to inner virtue. And the Communist Party, scholars note, has expanded such time-honored definitions of beauty to include devotional sacrifice to the people. Fan, with her mix of patriotism and elegance, hits all the right notes. She is the perfect star for a modern China.
Since her release last October, Fan has consciously kept a low profile. (She and her agency declined to speak with VANITY FAIR for this story.) Her first post on social media after her public apology was an overt display of fealty to the Chinese government. On November 17, when a director made a pro-Taiwan comment at the Golden Horse Awards, Fan shared a pro-China post from the Communist youth league. “China,” she said, “cannot miss out on any inch.”
Her collaborators followed suit. On November 20, Feng Xiaogang, the director of the two Cell Phonemovies, who was reported to have been fined $288 million, announced that his next film would be about the 70th anniversary of the founding of the party. Creative Artists Agency China, which represents Fan, was rumored to have lost more than half of its income with the scandal, and its agents have been scrambling to sign new talent. One analyst predicts that a third of the Chinese film industry will go out of business in the coming years, leaving fewer than 1,000 production companies standing. Not since the Cultural Revolution have artists in China been as wary of the state, and as aware of the necessity of appeasing it.
But capitalism, once unleashed, does not give up on its privileges and profits easily. The film industry in China remains huge. A studio movie in America typically opens on fewer than 2,500 screens. A wide release in China, by contrast, can open on more than 20,000 screens. More crucially, the country is said to need an estimated 500,000 scripts to fill all its available screens and airtime over the next five years. If the story of Fan is the story of modern film in China, then both are far from over.
Fan, for her part, appears to be quietly plotting a comeback. Throughout the crisis, her production company never shut its doors. “Of course she lost a lot of money,” said Fang, the producer. “But she’s not completely depressed.” Fang and Li, Fan’s best friend and frequent collaborator, have been discussing future projects for their favorite star. When I asked Li why she would risk casting Fan, she told me that the anguish Fan has gone through would become the well she draws from. “Nobody can be a better actress than her,” Li said.
Zhengfu Pictures, which was co-founded by the former head of the state-run China Film Group, has been in discussions to purchase the rights to 355, the spy thriller that Fan had been slated to star in with Jessica Chastain. The Hollywood star had personally contacted Fan about the movie, wanting to know why there were no female James Bonds. Wouldn’t it be cool, Chastain wondered, to make a super espionage movie with actresses from around the world?
Universal pledged $20 million for the rights to 355, but the movie’s Chinese distributors pulled out in the wake of the tax scandal. Now, backed by a venture-capital fund in Hollywood, Zhengfu hopes to resurrect the project. In China, at least, big money still depends on big stars—and big money, it appears, is still willing to bet on Fan Bingbing.
The subject of 355 came up as I was having a late lunch in the lobby of my hotel with Zhang, the director of Zhengfu Pictures. The sun was out, but it was so diffused through the infamous Beijing smog that you couldn’t be sure where the mountains ended and the high-rises began. Eighty years ago, before Chairman Mao, the building we were sitting in was a brick factory. Now it is a luxury hotel, with a penthouse frequented by Alibaba founder Jack Ma. While I was there, it was undergoing a top-to-bottom renovation, and the interior shifted daily: a wall I leaned on in the morning would be gone by the time I returned at night. I found it disorienting, but everyone around me seemed to regard the constant disruption as the price of progress.
Zhang, at age 30, personifies this particular brand of optimism. On January 22, the state tax authorities announced that they had collected a staggering $1.7 billion in back taxes from film and TV stars—an amount equal to 20 percent of China’s entire gross box office last year. But as Zhang sees it, President Xi isn’t out to ruin the film industry. He is making China more powerful. And a stronger China will, in the long run, be good for Chinese moviemakers.
Like most of the filmmakers I spoke to, Zhang mentioned both the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square—not as cause for fear but as a way of emphasizing that they aren’t going to be deterred by a few billion dollars in back taxes. Picking up his fork, he traced an imaginary path in the air to illustrate the film industry’s attitude toward the government crackdown. “If you see a mountain,” he said, “just go around it.”
That sense of determination is apparently shared by Fan Bingbing. China’s film industry was built on the hustle and grit of young entrepreneurs like her—and as true hustlers know, there’s always money to be made, even in the face of authoritarian rule. “She is a businesswoman first, then an actress,” an industry insider told me.
Not long ago, Fan had drinks with her friend Li, who told me that they discussed Fan’s ordeal. If the best art reflects its times, the two concluded, who better to cast as a lead than Fan Ye herself?
Fan laughed at her luck. Perhaps there was an upside to becoming the world’s most celebrated missing person. “I worked so hard,” she told her friend, “and this is how I become famous.”
Read at Vanity Fair.