Fan Bingbing is arguably the most famous actress in China, a prolific star who has made the leap to international fame with roles in the Iron Man and X-Men franchises. She appeared in Cannes in May to promote a coming spy blockbuster with Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penélope Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o.
She has more than 62 million followers on China’s equivalent of Twitter, Weibo, and appears in ads for products around the world — from vitamins in Australia to lipstick by Guerlain, the clothes of Montblanc and the diamonds of De Beers.
Now she is missing.
Fan, who turns 37 on Sunday, has dropped out of public view for more than three months — the victim of a sudden and precipitous fall from grace.
Her disappearance has been greeted with concern among fans and fear among her counterparts in the industry. It has fueled a flurry of rumors of personal rivalries and political intrigue, even at the pinnacles of power in Beijing, though few concrete facts.
That so little is known about someone so famous in China — even whether she is in detention, or in hiding — says much about the murky intersection of politics and business, entertainment and celebrity.
“She’s like collateral damage,” Hung Huang, a critic and publisher, said.
Fan’s disappearance appears to be related to a government investigation into tax evasion in the film business, but she has not been charged with any crime, and no officials have confirmed that she is even under investigation. Few who know her, or the industry, believe it is simply a matter of paying taxes, though. And the damage to her reputation — and perhaps her livelihood — has already been done.
Her name was abruptly removed from the posters for a Chinese production starring Bruce Willis, known in English as “Unbreakable Spirit,” about the Japanese bombing of China’s wartime capital, Chongqing, from 1938 to 1943.
The film’s release, originally scheduled for August, has also been delayed until October, though whether that is linked to her situation remains unclear. (The name in Chinese is “Da Hong Zha,” which, inauspiciously for any movie, can mean “The Big Bomb.”)
Another film in which she had a role, a sequel of an animated motion-capture film, also was delayed in June and has not yet been rescheduled. Raymond Zhou, an independent film critic, claimed in an interview that Fan’s role had been edited out.
Several of the brands she represents also have distanced themselves from her. They include Swisse Wellness, an Australian company, which announced it was suspending use of her name, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Wednesday. A duty free store in Thailand did the same.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Beijing Normal University published a survey ranking “social responsibility” among 100 celebrities last week and put Fan last.
A promotional video Fan recorded for De Beers, posted on YouTube on May 24, amounts to one of her last public appearances.
In it, Fan describes how her parents sent her to music school as a child and wanted her to be a teacher, though she decided as a teenager to pursue an acting career. (She compares cutting a diamond for jewelry to the process of making a film.)
“Women today are very powerful,” she says, “they take control of their work and career, and in the meantime take care of their families.”
Fan’s disappearance followed an accusation in late May by a retired state television anchor, Cui Yongyuan. He posted on Weibo what appeared to be two contracts for an upcoming film, a sequel to one of her early successes, Cell Phone, released in 2003. One purported to show a salary of $1.6 million to be reported to the tax authorities (for four days work, as was widely noted online), the second an actual payment of $7.8 million.
The practice of having dual contracts — known as “yin and yang” contracts — is widespread in many industries in China as a way to avoid taxes, but Cui’s accusation prompted the State Administration of Taxation to announce a broad inquiry into the entertainment industry.
Its announcement did not mention Fan, but included this warning: “If violations of tax laws and regulations are found, they will be handled in strict accordance with the law.”
Cui later retreated from his initial accusations, saying he did not mean to target Fan. His ire appeared to be directed as much toward the director of Cell Phone, Feng Xiaogang. Cui previously had accused him of slander because the plot — in which a prominent television anchor has an affair with an assistant, played by Fan — bore striking, though Cui said inaccurate, parallels to Cui’s own career. A person at Cui’s office said he was no longer making any statements on the matter.
Fan denied the accusation of tax evasion — as has Feng — but she has stopped posting on her Weibo account since the tax investigation was announced. Nor has she updated her verified Twitter and Facebook accounts since she was in Cannes in May. There have been rumors of her arrest or detention — or even her flight from China.
Efforts to reach Fan or a spokesman in recent weeks proved unsuccessful.
Officials declined to comment on the status of the investigation, or whether Fan has since become a focus of it. An official with the Public Security Bureau in Wuxi, the city near Shanghai where her studio is based, refused to comment on whether the bureau had, as rumored, taken over the case.
“The situation is that we all speak with one voice from top to bottom: that is that we don’t accept interviews and we have no comment,” the official said.
When it comes to the entertainment industry, which is heavily censored in China, the authorities appear to be particularly sensitive to the influence stars can have — for better or worse — on public opinion.
In the aftermath of the tax investigation, the authorities also announced new limits on the salaries of actors, even in privately financed films. No one actor can now earn more than 70 percent of the entire cast or more than 40 percent of production costs. The statement did not mention Fan, but said the industry was “distorting social values” and “fostering money worship tendencies.”
Hung, the critic, said the investigation clearly had been intended to send a message about celebrity excess — and perhaps even about tax evasion. She noted the often-cited idiom “to kill a chicken to scare the monkey,” and said even the uncertainty around Fan’s case would have a chilling effect.
“It makes people more nervous,” she said, “when it is unclear what is going on.”