The status of Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing, who has disappeared from public view amid speculation that she might be under government control in relation to a tax-evasion matter, could have a widespread impact on everything from film projects to media companies and brand relationships. In some cases, it already has begun despite no charges having been made public amid the swirling chatter. In recent days, talk has swirled of scrubbing the actress from completed movies or recasting upcoming pictures — which could include hot Cannes project 355 — while at least one major local film’s release has been postponed indefinitely amid the ongoing situation.
Navigating the Chinese industry, particularly as it relates to the Communist Party in the most regulated entertainment market in the world, consistently throws up hurdles. No discernible formal allegations have been lodged against Fan. But what looks to the general outside world as a wholly incredible situation, where a star of her profile vanishes, also serves as a reminder of Hollywood’s tender footing when dealing with China. Regularly I’m told how sensitive it is to deal with the PROC.
In this case, we have attempted to connect the dots and see what the future might hold.
Fan is repped by CAA. Repeated requests for comment have yielded no response from its L.A. or Beijing offices. Perhaps tellingly, a press release sent last week announcing a new co-head of the motion picture group in China did not list Fan among the agency’s clients.
CAA was involved in packaging the all-female spy project 355, which was the hottest project at Cannes. Fan is among the stars attached at the time, alongside Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o. Production isn’t eyed until next year, but in light of the current situation — and with no clear end to it in sight — it’s fair to speculate that Fan will be recast.
Chastain, who championed the project, has a relationship with Fan. But at a certain point, the production, which was propped up by its global appeal, is going to have to make a hard decision unless Fan’s situation is clarified. This potentially is complicated by the fact that Fan might not be able to leave China.
This also brings up Huayi Brothers, which acquired local rights to 355 in May. Huayi spent about $20M for Chinese distribution. A source in China notes that the company would be in a tight spot vis-à-vis its investment if Fan is not replaced. If the movie were due soon, and she were in it, the consensus is that it would not pass the Middle Kingdom censors. With the movie still a ways away, the parties likely are awaiting some clarity.
Around the same time that Fan last posted on her Weibo account in early June, shares in Huayi Brothers — with which she has worked closely in the past — began a sharp slide and were down about 32% as of today’s close on the Shenzhen exchange. It remains murky if this is related to her situation, however Zhejiang Talent Television & Film, of which Fan is a shareholder, has been highly volatile over the past few months and is down 50% since June 1 (both did see small improvements today). Huayi is producing Cell Phone 2, in which Fan has been expected to star. But I hear that the movie’s future now is uncertain. Huayi has not responded to requests for comment.
Cell Phone 2 is a sequel to Feng Xiaogang’s 2003 comedy-drama that involved a TV host having an extramarital affair. And, in a new twist, Feng has reportedly been cut from a cameo role he had in Jia Zhangke’s Cannes entry Ash Is Purest White, which releases in China this weekend. There has been speculation this could have to do with Fan’s alleged predicament. In one of her last major public appearances, she was on the Cannes red carpet for the movie in May. Huayi also is listed as a distributor on the film.
But the edits also might be a coincidence. I hear the cuts were made awhile back, and Feng attended the September 16 opening for the Russo brothers’ new LA restaurant. There previously has been speculation about Feng’s tax situation in China, but it is unlikely he would be able to travel freely or use social media (as he has recently) if there were a major concern.
The situation surrounding Fan began in May when she was associated with the practice of so-called “yin and yang contracts,” a method of tax evasion in which there are two contracts and only the one of lesser value is declared to the authorities. It was brought up when Chinese TV presenter Cui Yongyuan posted images of two documents on a social media account that he claimed were copies of different contracts signed by the actress for the same job — and believed at the time to be for Cell Phone 2. He later said the two documents were not about Fan but maintained that dual contracts exist in the industry. Cui also called out Huayi Brothers, according to the People’s Daily.
Cui, I’m told, was upset over Feng’s original Cell Phone. The Chinese media at the time, USC professor and China expert Stanley Rosen notes, played it up as a story about Cui’s life.
To public knowledge, Fan has not been charged with any offenses. Yin and yang contracts and tax evasion were, however, cited as a concern by a group of Chinese government organizations that released a directive on June 27 seeking to cap “astronomical” star salaries. Also in the cross-hairs were issues they said must be managed in order to promote the healthy development of the business rather than “distorting social values.”
The State Administration of Taxation had said in early June that China would launch a tax-evasion investigation into the country’s film and TV industries. It also urged industry workers to report earnings faithfully and pay the proper taxes and noted that cheats should be placed on a “blacklist.” The office didn’t name Fan in its statement of intent this summer, but it did ask local offices in the southern province of Jiangsu, where her FBB Studios is based, to carry out investigations. The studio previously has rejected the allegations and said it would cooperate with the authorities.
Locally, Fan’s latest finished project, L.O.R.D.: Lord of Ravaging Dynasties 2, was scheduled for release in China on July 6 during the lucrative summer blackout. But on June 27, the film’s official Weibo account announced the release was being postponed, citing production issues. That was the same day as the state authorities’ notice on star salaries, tax evasion and social values came to light.
Further in question is The Perfect Blue, which wrapped in May. Chinese reports said the film would be recast and reshot without Fan, but director Baoping Cao’s office denied the suggestions. There is no release date on the movie.
And, Air Strike (aka Unbreakable Spirit), a Xiao Feng-directed actioner that stars Bruce Willis, moved its China release from August 17 to October 26. Fan’s name has been removed from the film’s local poster amid speculation that she is being eliminated from the movie. The China release date is believed to be still in place. It is unclear if an October 26 U.S. date via Grindstone/Lionsgate is going forward, though this might be a question of a home entertainment release.
It is also thought in some circles that Fan’s circumstances mighty have an indirect effect on Crazy Rich Asians securing a Chinese release date. The actress is not at all related to the movie, but her situation combined with the extravagance and stereotypes used in the film could be an issue for local censors.
Also potentially affected in this seemingly incredible state of affairs are Fan’s brand ambassadorships. The New York Times reported that Montblanc already has dropped the actress, while the status of her relationships with Guerlain and DeBeers are unclear.
Authorities have been much more serious about tax issues in the past few years. and it’s been suggested that the attention on Fan because she is such a high-profile, highly-paid star.
Rosen says the Communist Party “has long been wary of the power and influence of celebrities, and their prominence on social media.” The message, he adds, “is meant to be clear. No one is safe! If Fan Bingbing, a great representative of China’s entertainment industry on the international stage, can be brought down so easily, and quickly lose all her endorsements, the rest of you better keep a low profile and self-censor yourself when it comes to activities in the public arena. Don’t take positions on issues where the CCP wants everyone to follow its lead and speak with one voice.”
He is optimistic, however, saying he believes Fan will resurface because “China needs film stars with high international profiles, unless there are serious charges against her. The yin-yang contract issue is not that uncommon. As a famous Chinese director once told me — perhaps with some hyperbole — 99% of the Chinese film industry is corrupt. This corruption takes many forms, and at least some of the corruption, now public, has compelled the Party to act.”