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Fan Bingbing Returns to Screen in Jessica Chastain’s ‘355’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Fan Bingbing is returning to the screen in Jessica Chastain’s “355,” the highly anticipated action film that cast the Chinese superstar just a few months before a tax-evasion scandal brought her career to a screeching halt.

Sources confirmed to Variety that “355” is set to begin shooting this year with its previously announced stars – Chastain, Fan, Lupita Nyong’o, Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard – and director Simon Kinberg. “The project is moving forward with the original cast and filmmaker, and a start date announcement with full details will be forthcoming,” a source close to the production said.

However, the film has lost the backing of China’s Huayi Brothers Media, raising questions about how it is being financed. “We are no longer involved with this project,” a Huayi spokesman told Variety this week, without further elaboration.

“355,” an all-female spy thriller produced through Chastain’s Freckle Films and introduced to foreign investors and distributors by FilmNation, was the hottest-selling item in the Cannes market last May. The project’s budget has been tagged around $75 million.

But Fan’s participation, and the fate of the film, was thrown in doubt when a whistle-blower alleged last June that the actress had deliberately under-reported her income to tax authorities through the use of secret contracts – a not-uncommon practice in the Chinese entertainment industry. Fan abruptly dropped out of public view for months until re-emerging last October and confessing publicly to her misdeeds. She and her companies were told that they had to pay a staggering RMB 883 million ($129 million) in fines, back taxes, late payment penalties and interest.

While Fan appears to have escaped criminal sanctions and an official ban on her as a performer, the Chinese film industry has held back from re-embracing her. She has disappeared from billboards and magazine pages, popping up only occasionally on social media to make banal and friendly comments.

“355” appears to be her first fresh acting gig since the tax scandal. Depending on the eventual start date of shooting, she may not appear back on screen until late 2020 or even 2021.

In a video interview with the Collider.com website, director Kinberg said last week that he expects the film to shoot this year. He added that the original cast remain “more than interested – they are committed.”

But other details are unclear. CAA’s media finance department handled rights sales to “355” for North America and Greater China, scoring deals reported to be worth more than $20 million each with Universal and Huayi Brothers, respectively. CAA represents Kinberg and all five actresses.

Huayi Brothers has now dropped out of the project for unspecified reasons. The decision could reflect a determination that Fan remains a toxic figure in China and that importing a Hollywood title starring her would be too difficult. It could also reflect Huayi’s own financial problems. After sliding into loss in 2018, the company issued a warning to shareholders this week that it expects to lose about $13.5 million (RMB 92 million) in the first quarter of 2019.

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