“Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” goes an old Chinese proverb about making an example of an individual to rattle the many.
Embattled Chinese actress and global celebrity Fan Bingbing, who last week admitted to running afoul of her government and evading millions of dollars in taxes, is “absolutely” being made an example of, Hollywood insiders and regional experts who spoke to Variety say.
After becoming the subject of wild conspiracy theories over her well-being before resurfacing Oct. 3 in a state of deep contrition, Fan is also likely to also face consequences in the very realm that could save her from financial ruin: show business.
Producers on her next gig, the international all-female action movie “355,” are prepared to fire and replace her should she not emerge from scandal in a manner that satisfies the government, film distributors and Chinese moviegoers, multiple individuals close to the project say. For now, the team is content to watch and wait, with production not expected to begin until spring of 2019.
Any decision would specifically be made to please Huayi Brothers, the entertainment company that paid a hefty $20 million in May for the rights to release “355” in mainland China when the deal was packaged out of the Cannes Film Festival.
While the film will also star Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz and Marion Cotillard, a top Chinese star would be crucial for any mainland distributor to recoup such a high rights fee.
The state could also impose a media ban on Fan and force an acting hiatus, as it did in 2007 with Tang Wei, the breakout star of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.” Tang was removed from all theatrical prints and advertisements for the film and did not work again for three years.
Representatives for “355” director Simon Kinberg and FilmNation, the movie’s sales agent, declined to comment for this story. A rep for Huayi Brothers did not respond to Variety’s request for comment.
A $130 million bill for unpaid taxes, late fees and fines, and an empty dance card are not Fan’s only woes. “The bigger issue for Huayi and other producers is how uncertain public reaction will be. The public is not sympathetic to those who have flouted the law,” Clayton Dube, director of the U.S.-China Institute at USC Annenberg, says of “355’s” commercial prospects in China. “She’s in a slightly different category, because she wasn’t taking public money,” Dube adds. “But she’s not contributing to the public purse. That’s still corruption.”
Fan was reportedly detained and grilled for months over secret contracts she’s said to have signed in parallel with the deals she officially reported to tax authorities regarding her film work. While fans wondered about her disappearance from public view, Chinese academics awarded her a shocking score of zero in an annual state-sanctioned report ranking the “social responsibility” of Chinese celebrities, presaging her spectacular fall from grace.
The media coverage labeled her toxic for the tens of millions of Chinese youths who obsessively follow her as an artist, fashion plate and ultimate influencer. While the social responsibility report likened her to the Chinese equivalent of a Kardashian sister, Fan’s brand is observably upmarket.
The bigger issue is how uncertain public reaction will be. The public is not sympathetic to those who have flouted the law.”
Clayton Dube, U.S.-China Institute, USC Annenberg
She’s been the face of campaigns for Louis Vuitton, jeweler De Beers, Adidas and luxury trinket maker Montblanc. That last company dropped her as a result of the tax scandal. More are expected to follow suit.
It’s not all bad news for Fan. Global agency CAA has no plans to drop her from its client lists as she works on mending fences, an individual close to the actress says. A CAA spokesperson declined to comment.
CAA does not rep Fan in China, but scouts global branding and acting opportunities for the star. The thinking inside the agency is that Fan will not face any criminal charge as long as she settles up with the government, and she still has plenty of support from her global fan base. CAA would also be shielded from any investigation as it takes no commission on her Chinese deals.
An important sign that the government does not wish to scrub Fan from the face of the Earth lies in her active account on Chinese social media giant Sina Weibo, says Dube. “It’s striking to me that they didn’t pull the plug and close her account. They didn’t make her a nonperson,” he says.
Indeed, it was on Weibo that Fan made an abject apology for the entire mess. “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,” she wrote.
Fan will be preoccupied with being the sacrificial chicken for some time. As for the monkeys? There are nearly 200 well-paid actors now in the government’s crosshairs, reports say, based on the muckraking of a Chinese talk-show host named Cui Yongyuan.
Cui is credited with exposing Fan’s parallel contracts, known as “yin-yang” deals, and says he’s got a list of 585 actors and crew in China who engaged in similar practices. An industrywide investigation is under way.