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  • Arts & Culture
  • Films
  • Issue 40


Left: Fan wears a skirt and top by ERDOS. Right: She wears a top by MIU MIU, poncho by JW ANDERSON, skirt by GRETA BOLDINI and shoes and earrings by MAISON SANS TITRE.

The woman who changed the face of China.
Words by Lavender Au. Photography by Jumbo Tsui. Styling by Evan Feng. Hair by Gao Jian. Makeup by Hu Yiyin.

I saw Fan Bingbing many times in Beijing—staring at me from inside elevators, metro stations, airports and malls—before I ever saw one of her movies. She made her name as an actress, but ask anyone and they will tell you that pigeonholing her is to misunderstand who she is. In 2018, she crashed the server of a popular e-commerce platform by posting about a facial mask she liked.

Fan, who was born in 1981, started her career 20 years before “influencer” became a common term, but that is the only word that encapsulates what she is. No one looked like her before, but now, everyone does. Her eggshell-pale skin, large eyes and diamond-shaped jawline have inspired thousands of knockoffs. I have a hypothesis that the default filter on Meitu—China’s photoshop app of choice—makes everyone look like her. Fan is more than her looks, though, she’s a business. 

Due to COVID, I speak to Fan on a WeChat video call. She’s in a photography studio in Beijing, and has just wrapped up a shoot. It doesn’t seem much warmer than outside: Her hair is hidden in a black-beanie, and she’s wearing an egg-shaped down jacket with chunky braids down its front from local designer Christopher Bu. Her face fills my phone screen, her skin so white it glows. After seeing umpteen imitations, coming face to face with the original is disconcerting. 

Like everyone else, Fan has been affected by the pandemic, which stalled the production and release of films in China. She has found new ways to fill the time. She’s tried her hand at cooking—in her case, poké bowls. And part of her daily routine is to stay up until 2 or 3 a.m., watching beauty tutorials or videos on Douyin (the original TikTok), and scrolling Instagram for inspiration. She admits that going to sleep late is a bad habit of hers, and it seems she won’t be breaking it any time soon: “Time passes so quickly, I’m reluctant to sleep.”

Fan is making up for lost time. Just when she was poised to have it all, in 2018, she went through a brutal reversal of fortune. It started with a grudge borne by a former talk show host, Cui Yongyuan. Fan had acted in popular director Feng Xiaogang’s movie Cell Phone, which bore a striking resemblance to Cui’s personal life. He had complained publicly about being hounded by journalists when the film was released—the lead character has an affair and finds himself replaced at work by his mistress—and Fan was about to act in its sequel. He first claimed she was paid around $1.5 million for four days’ work, supposedly on Cell Phone II. He then leaked another document, as proof she used a dual-contract to avoid paying taxes. The second contract listed that she was actually paid closer to $8 million. The news blew up on social media. Fan’s team denied the allegations. Then, she disappeared.

Once an image of aspiration, Fan became a target for public resentment. The Chinese release of Air Strike was canceled. The release of L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties 2, a fantasy adventure film in which she had a leading role, was postponed. And it was rumored that the team behind the historical drama Legend of Ba Qing was transposing another actress’s face over hers. The fallout also affected her brother, a singer and actor, and her then-fiancé, the actor Li Chen. They both found their work frozen. Other stars frantically filed their taxes to avoid Fan’s fate. A new rule was put in place, likely inspired by the astronomical amounts listed on her contracts: Actors’ pay was capped at 40% of production costs and lead actors limited to 70% of total pay for actors.

The media began to censor coverage of Fan. Her social media went quiet. Her admirers asked where she was. Her younger brother wept in a meeting with his fans, and said somewhat ominously, “I don’t know if I’ll still be standing here 10 years later.” Her wedding never took place. Pictures of the pink-themed birthday party where Li proposed had lit up social media the year before; as had his engagement gift—an Enchanted Doll customized by designer Marina Bychkova to look like her. Fan was placed under house arrest. Three months of silence later, a public letter appeared on her Weibo account, in which she apologized to her fans and the nation.

Fan wears a dress by MIU MIU and a ring by MAISON SANS TITRE.

When I ask Fan about the tax evasion incident, she gives me almost exactly the same answer she gave The New York Times just over a year ago—“No one’s life will always be smooth sailing.” She adds that she’s always been the kind of person willing to face difficulties. Fan has been working hard since she was a child. In fact, Fan says that because she didn’t have much time to play with dolls when she was younger, she still does it now, describing it as relaxing. Her collection includes rare Barbies and Japanese ball-jointed dolls.

She grew up in east China in the port city of Yantai. Her father sang in the naval force’s art troupe and her mother was a dancer. After attending television and film school in Shanghai, she appeared on television in 1998, as a maid in a My Fair Princess, a popular palace drama—think Twelfth Night set in the Qing dynasty. 

But it was the part of a television host’s mistress in Cell Phone—the highest grossing film of 2003—that made her a household name. By then, she was represented by the agency owned by film conglomerate Huayi Brothers. Four years later, in 2007, she started Fan Bingbing Studio. There, she invested, produced and acted in her own films, and started a celebrity-making machine of her own. By the time she starred in Lost in Thailand in 2012, which became the first movie in China to earn over one billion yuan ($150 million), Fan was enough of a celebrity that she simply played herself. 

She’d already built a public persona as the epitome of the modern power woman and gained the nickname “Master Fan”—even though in Chinese, “master” is usually reserved for men. When asked by a reporter whether she’d marry into a rich family, Fan replied, “I am rich.” It became her defining quote. She proved deft at pithy comebacks. To a common criticism of her, which compared her to a vase (beautiful outside, empty inside), she retorted, “If I am one, it’s a precious one, which can’t be put just anywhere.” 

The fact that Fan always plays strong female roles is part of her attraction. She has tapped into a consciousness that many women identify with, and look up to. She’s a consort who ascends the ranks of the Tang dynasty court to become the empire’s only female ruler. She’s a masseuse in Beijing, taking her child and running away from the two men who want to control her life. She’s an animation who wields mystical powers. Many of her fans are from the post-Cultural Revolution generations, educated and cherished only daughters. They want it all—in their personal lives and careers. Fan, in their eyes, is a success story. 

Her rise coincided with China’s film industry boom and its expansion beyond theaters into home entertainment and merchandise. China’s studios now rival those of Hollywood. Instead of Universal, Paramount, Disney and Warner, China has Huayi Brothers, Tencent Pictures and Huanxi Media, to name just a few. While Chinese audiences turn up for The Avengers, they also come out for homegrown patriotic blockbusters like Wolf Warrior and The Eight Hundred. For Hollywood movies, hiring a Chinese star is a way to improve their chances of being included in the quota, set by the film regulator, for foreign films let into China—and ultimately ensuring a sizeable audience. This may be the reason for Fan’s casting as Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past, in which she has one line. 

Perhaps more than in other countries, China’s celebrities must set a moral example. Fan’s family are Communist Party members, which is common for people of her stature, although stars in China tend to stay out of the nuts and bolts of politics unless it’s to spread what the government terms “positive energy” in the form of patriotic movies. Fan has played her part as a People’s Liberation Army fighter pilot in Sky Hunter. She has also turned her red carpet appearances into a show of patriotism, representing Chinese film abroad. Before the tax scandal, Fan frequently showed up on best-dressed lists for her appearances at international film circuits—sometimes the only Chinese actress to get a mention. Her parade down the red carpet at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, in an imperial yellow gown with dragons flying up from its hem, is part of the country’s collective memory.

“To feel no shame inside, THAT’S what’s most important.”

Just under a year after the scandal, in 2019, Fan reentered the public eye at an anniversary gala for streaming company iQIYI. Her understated Alexander McQueen trouser suit and De Beers diamonds were a far cry from her red carpet gowns. She arrived with little fanfare, long after most guests had arrived, and didn’t take questions from the media. At the gala’s private dinner, she made toasts and played party games. It seemed she was testing the waters, to see if she’d be accepted once more. When photos circulated on Weibo, the reaction was sometimes vitriolic—some users thought she should be banned from acting for life. She accepts this criticism as part of her job: “The most important thing is whether or not what you’re doing now is right or not, isn’t it?” she says. “To feel no shame inside, that’s what’s most important.”

Fan has a small circle of close friends, who she says stood by her through the scandal. “They made me feel the world was still warm,” she says. On her birthday last year, when she turned 39, she wrote a post in which she appeared to thank the 15 people in the industry who still wished her a happy birthday. She seems sanguine about this loss of fair-weather friends. “I knew at a very young age that not everyone would be your friend,” she says. “There are only three to five people you can call true friends.”

For the last few years, during which Fan hasn’t appeared on the silver screen, there’s no sign she’s given up on a comeback.1 “I’ve never really thought about what life after retirement would be like,” she says. Instead, she’s pivoted, or perhaps “leaned in” to what she’d always been—herself. 

Recently, Fan has become a star of the phone screen. In livestreams and short videos, she applies skincare masks and pats serums onto her face. The public have welcomed her back on social-shopping app Xiaohongshu, where she had already started building a following prior to the scandal. Its motto is “find the life you want,” and more than 300 million users share reviews of lifestyle products. Fan now has a following of 12 million on the app, where she posts—among other tips—her pre-flight routine which includes her own 15-minute facial massage technique. She began by advertising products from other brands, but has since started her own line—Fan Beauty. Soon after her appearance at the iQIYI gala, she launched a sea grape face mask. This way of connecting with the public is better for Fan at the moment: it doesn’t rely on industry intermediaries, many of whom are still nervous about being associated with her.

Fan will return to movie screens in The 355, which is due for release next year. Cast before the scandal, Fan joins Jessica Chastain, Penélope Cruz, Lupita Nyong’o and Diane Kruger in a Hollywood spy sisterhood film, where they hunt down a weapon that could destroy the world. She says she learned a lot from filming The 355, specifically, how her co-stars manage their work-life balance. “Because I spend most of my time working, I have less time to see friends, less time for my pets, less time to spend with family,” she says. 

“I pass on hope,” Fan says simply, when I ask her what role she plays in her family. Fan’s younger brother, Fan Chengcheng, has followed her into the entertainment industry. He joined the aptly named reality television show Idol Producer where, inspired by South Korean celebrity boot camps, male trainees compete to be part of a nine-member pop group—he made it in. 

He is 19 years her junior, and when I ask her what’s changed between when she joined the industry and when he did, she says, “It’s so different.” This is the most forceful statement Fan has given since we started speaking. She proceeds to explain how superstars lived on, in the memories of her generation. “They would be remembered for a long time, respected for a long time,” she says. Now, it’s not the same. “Maybe someone likes a star one day, and then the next day, someone similar comes along.” In the current entertainment scene, she says there’s always someone else who can play the same role—it’s rare to have parts where only one person will do. 

Perhaps it’s the machine, perhaps it’s the audience. In any case, Fan thinks the celebrity assembly line doesn’t create many legends any more. Being an icon—being her—is a rarity. Maybe the reason young actors can’t make a lasting impression is because so many of them are trying to be Fan Bingbing. 

( 1 ) In May 2020, it was announced that Fan would return to television screens via the Chinese video service Youku. She stars in Win the World, a period drama set in the Qin dynasty, and plays the role of a widowed entrepreneur who helps bankroll the construction of the Great Wall of China. South China Morning Post reported that, with a budget of $70 million, the series is the most expensive in China’s history.

( 1 ) In May 2020, it was announced that Fan would return to television screens via the Chinese video service Youku. She stars in Win the World, a period drama set in the Qin dynasty, and plays the role of a widowed entrepreneur who helps bankroll the construction of the Great Wall of China. South China Morning Post reported that, with a budget of $70 million, the series is the most expensive in China’s history.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty

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