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The swirling tax-evasion scandal that has engulfed the Chinese film industry, forcing the disappearance of A-list star Fan Bingbing, may have just dented the reputation of another major figure: veteran director Feng Xiaogang.
China’s entertainment trade press was awash Monday with the news that a high-profile cameo by Feng in arthouse star Jia Zhangke’s latest film, Ash Is the Purest White, was cut.
Ash Is the Purest White, a decade-spanning crime melodrama, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Fan Bingbing, in one of her last major public appearances, walked the red carpet in support of the film. Feng, one of China’s most esteemed directors and an occasional character actor, also made a brief but eye-catching appearance in the film as a doctor.
But during the China premiere of the film in Beijing on Sunday, Feng’s scene was conspicuously missing from a newly cut version, and Fan was nowhere to be seen at the event in her customary haute couture. Chinese social media instantly lit up with speculation that Jia’s hand had been forced by China’s Film Bureau — the assumption being that Feng’s removal was necessary for the film to gain approval for its wide release on Friday. Altogether, Jia is said to have trimmed approximately six minutes from the original version that screened in Cannes.
Although the cuts of Feng have caught attention, it’s not particularly uncommon for auteurs to rework festival films prior to their commercial opening, given that they often have to edit in a rush to meet the early submission deadlines for events like Cannes. Still, Feng’s removal is conspicuous given his extreme fame and fan appeal in China. At Cannes, for example, he appeared on the poster for Ash Is the Purest White as though he had a major role rather than just a cameo. The two filmmakers are also known to be allies: Feng’s latest hit as a director, Youth (2017), opened an indie film festival founded by Jia in rural China last year (Fan also served as the event’s official star ambassador).
When asked directly at a press conference on Sunday about the excision of Feng from Ash Is the Purest White, Jia was cryptic, if not evasive. “When I was writing this script, I kept coming back to one line: ‘It’s hard to explain in a few words, and it arouses complex feelings.’ This is the feeling I was going for in the film, and this is how I am feeling right now.” He then moved on without further elaboration.
Ash Is the Purest White traces the tortured romance of young rural woman (played by Jia’s wife and muse, Zhao Tao) and a low-level gangster (Liao Fan) during 18 years of dizzying change and development in China. Like much of the work that has made Jia an international arthouse star, the film has been noted for its nuance and contemplative tone.
Fan and Feng have been linked at the heart of China’s tax evasion scandal since it exploded into public view in late May, when former state television anchor Cui Yongyuan posted documents to social media that appeared to be two acting contracts for the upcoming film Cell Phone 2, the sequel to a hit Feng film starring Fan from 2003. The materials were said to lay bare the common, but thoroughly illegal, practice of “yin-yang contracting,” whereby production companies provide actors with two sets of pay contracts: one small one to submit to the tax authorities, and a second revealing the star’s much larger real paycheck. Although the names were redacted, the leaked docs purportedly showed that Fan was claiming $1.56 million (RMB10 million) for four days of work on Cell Phone 2, when her true pay actually totaled an additional $7.8 million (RMB 50 million).
The revelations and the social media frenzy that followed prompted China’s State Administration of Taxation to announce a broad inquiry into the entertainment industry, followed by an ominous warning: “If violations of tax laws and regulations are found, they will be handled in strict accordance with the law.”
The stock of leading Chinese film studio Huayi Brothers Media, which produced Cell Phone and was backing its planned sequel, promptly plummeted (its shares have yet to fully recover). Perhaps non-coincidentally, given the apparent preemptive removal of Feng, Huayi Brothers also is the lead distributor of Ash is the Purest White.
Representatives for Fan strongly denied any wrongdoing, but she soon stopped posting on social media platform Weibo, where she has over 60 million followers, and she hasn’t been seen in public since. Her disappearance has sparked wild rumors, ranging from claims that she’s been imprisoned or is under house arrest somewhere in China, and even one media report claiming that she was spotted in Los Angeles seeking asylum in the United States.
Many of Fan’s fans, however, believe she was simply an unlucky victim felled in the crossfire between Cui and his true target, Feng. For over a decade, Cui has accused Feng and Huayi Brothers of slander, claiming that the plot of Cell Phone was loosely based on his life but took liberties that damaged his reputation. The film follows the travails of a prominent television anchor who carries on an extramarital affair with his assistant, played by Fan. It won numerous awards in China and became a commercial sensation. The sequel, naturally, is now in doubt.
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