“I don’t need to marry into a wealthy family. I am my own wealthy family,” she told Chinese reporters.
Ms Fan was right: a multimillionaire with a string of hits behind her, she would win roles in Hollywood blockbusters such as X-Men and repeatedly topped China’s list of celebrity earners with an income of Rmb300m ($44m) last year, according to Forbes.
Then, she disappeared.
After a three-month blackout on media reports of her whereabouts, this week it was announced she would be fined for tax evasion. The episode contributed to a deepening sense that the net of repression under President Xi Jinping was widening.
“It’s not the fact that Fan Bingbing evaded taxes that worries people, it’s that she disappeared,” said human rights lawyer Liu Xiaoyuan.
Ms Fan’s rise tracked the growth of China’s film industry to become the world’s second-largest movie market by revenue. Her downfall signals an end to years of lax regulation which saw widespread tax dodging, according to industry insiders.
Born in 1981 into a relatively humble family in the eastern city of Qingdao, Ms Fan later recalled: “When I walked into the entertainment industry, my family had no connections, so I knew I had to risk failure and bear the consequences alone.”
She built those connections through alliances with powerful men — notably the founders of Huayi Brothers, China’s top studio, and director Feng Xiaogang, who cast her in the 2003 hit film Cell Phone, in which Ms Fan played the mistress of a television presenter.
Her prodigious work ethic — she would make four or five films a year — combined with her doll-like looks were key to her expanding appeal but burdened her with years of media speculation that she had undergone plastic surgery.
She tackled the controversy head on, enlisting a hospital in Beijing to issue an official denial and suing another facility for damages. The battles seemed to embolden Ms Fan, who split with Huayi Brothers in 2007 to found her own production company. She soon set about boosting her international profile, attracting attention at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010 by wearing a dress with two leaping dragons in the bright yellow reserved for emperors in ancient China.
Ms Fan collected endorsements from western companies hoping to boost their profile in China, becoming L’Oréal’s first Asian global ambassador and the face of other luxury brands.
“She was one of the first Chinese actresses born after 1980 to stake a claim on international red carpets as an international star dressed by leading designers,” says Aynne Kokas, a Chinese cinema expert at the University of Virginia. “She has arguably been the most successful Chinese actress in building a profile outside of China.”
In 2014, she earned a role as a mutant in X-Men: Days of Future Past, after hiring an American English language tutor.
Ms Fan continued to focus on domestic audiences too, however, starring in a television drama about Wu Zetian, the only female emperor in Chinese history. With a budget of almost $50m, The Empress of China was the most expensive TV production in the country’s history.
Viewers saw parallels between Wu and Ms Fan, strong female characters in a male-dominated environment. Wu was demonised by Chinese historians as ruthless and sexually assertive, part of a tradition of vilifying powerful women that has continued.
Some commentators have suggested that Ms Fan’s gender made her more vulnerable to a crackdown. “In the past, women have been targeted for other issues when men were not,” says Ms Kokas.
In the end, it was a powerful man — Cui Yongyuan, a former host on the state broadcaster CCTV, who said he was hurt by speculation he was the real-life inspiration for Cell Phone — who brought the tax evasion allegations against Ms Fan to light on social media in May.
Shanghai’s film festival was then ordered to purge any references to Ms Fan from promotional material. Chinese media, which had previously followed the actress’s every move, were banned from reporting on her whereabouts, according to two journalists.
The authorities have issued an ultimatum to the film industry to declare unpaid taxes by the end of the year. “Everybody talks about the winter, even the nuclear winter in the industry, ” says Peter Bien, a film producer in Beijing.
Ultimately, Ms Fan’s legacy may be to have won a greater space for Chinese actors overseas. This summer, The Meg, a Hollywood production starring Ms Fan’s rival Li Bingbing, earned more than $300m worldwide.
Ms Fan will be exempted from criminal investigation if she and companies she partially owns pay back taxes and fines of Rmb850m, allowing her to attempt to revive her career. But a statement this week suggested her trademark self-confidence has been blunted.
“I have failed the country,” she wrote on social media. “My success owes to the support from my country and the people. Without the great policies of the [Chinese Communist] party and the country, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing.”
The writer is the FT’s Shanghai correspondent
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