Legend has it that Yang Yuhuan’s visage would “embarrass any flower”. Such was her beauty, wrote Tang poet Bai Juyi, that she mesmerised men with a simple smile. All the other ladies in the imperial palaces were cast into shadow.
When Emperor Xuanzong, a powerful ruler in the Tang Dynasty, first laid eyes on Yang, then an 18 year-old concubine of his son, he was immediately besotted. He made her a guifei, or imperial consort, and spent all his time with her, neglecting matters of state. The mismanagement took a toll on his empire and Xuanzong had to flee from the capital Chang’an to Shu after a rebellion. His guards demanded that he put Yang to death, blaming her for the uprising, and the emperor reluctantly ordered that she be strangled.
Yang’s story is so legendary that it has inspired countless adaptations. Actress Fan Bingbing has even played the role twice, most recently in Zhang Yimou’s 2015 version Lady of the Dynasty.
Now that same actress might be reflecting on how her own story may be mirroring that of the tragic Tang beauty (without such a gruesome finale, WiC hastens to add).
Until recently Fan held the status of being China’s leading megastar. That status is at threat because Fan, who was China’s highest-paid celebrity over the past four years, has vanished without trace. For the past 100 days she has disappeared from the public eye and social media. Her silence began soon after news of an alleged tax evasion scandal went viral (see WiC412).
Fan was airbrushed out of the promotional material for her latest movie Unbreakable Spirit and advertisers have dropped her from a range of commercials. Phoenix News says that her Wuxi-based production company is an empty shell and Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reports that the Chinese authorities have banned the former A-lister from acting roles for three years.
The BBC also reported this week that Fan has just ranked last in a survey that grades celebrities on their sense of ‘social responsibility’. Indeed, she was awarded a scathing 0% rating in the 2017-2018 China Film and Television Social Responsibility Report, a survey produced by Beijing Normal University.
Rumours have even spread that her personal life has gone to pot, and that her fiancé, the actor Li Chen, has broken up with her.
And sure enough, there are comparisons being made between Fan and Yang Yuhuan in the entertainment media.
“Fan Bingbing’s biggest failure is that she wanted to be Wu Zetian [an Empress during the Tang Dynasty], but in the end, she’s just another version of Yang Yuhuan,” claimed Entertainment Industry, a blog. “She was the focus of the world, the darling of our time. But on her downfall, she is now being lambasted for ‘endangering the country and hurting the people’,” it said.
The tax evasion scandal has shaken China’s showbiz world. In early August, tax authorities issued new regulations, including shifting the taxable amount of stars’ salaries from 6.7% to 42%. The regulations are effective from January 2018 too, which means the industry has needed to backdate its taxes. The uncertainty prompted 70 film and TV companies to halt their projects, with some production firms going bankrupt.
“I just went over the taxes with the authorities and how much it is going to increase our costs. Just thinking about it makes me want to shut down the company and go home,” one producer complained to Yuleguan001, another entertainment blog.
Zhejiang Talent Television and Film is one of the affected parties. The studio, which has partnered with Fan and relied on her pulling power for many projects in the past, is now struggling financially. After all, “prior to the tax scandal, Fan Bingbing was Talent’s major cash machine,” one film critic wrote.
Fan is now the studio’s biggest liability and it is safe to say that its The Legend of Ba Qing, a costume drama starring Fan and the actor Gao Yunxiang – who is awaiting trial for alleged sexual assault in Sydney – isn’t going to see see the light of day either. Commercial partners Jiangsu Satellite TV and Dragon Satellite TV, as well as online streaming site Youku, could soon be demanding refunds for the broadcasting fees paid to Zhejiang Talent, the producer of the series.
Zhejiang Talent, which is listed in Shenzhen, made as much as Rmb688 million ($100.5 million) from the sale of rights for Ba Qing back in 2017. As of the end of June, its balance of cash and cash equivalents was Rmb198 million, while net cashflow from operating activities was Rmb64.9 million. And it’s not only Ba Qing that is in question. For instance, Gao stars in another TV series for Talent which seems likely to be shelved because of his problems with the Australian police. Another drama featuring Yao Di, who was revealed to be embroiled in an extra-marital affair with another actor, was also abandoned midway through filming.
A further financial loser for Talent has been The Voice of China (see WiC333) because of a legal dispute with the Dutch media company that owns the rights to the original format of the show. Industry insiders gossip that Talent has sunk at least Rmb300 million into licencing and production costs for a series that may never air.
Talent’s share price has fallen from Rmb17.1 in late May, when the tax scandal first erupted, to Rmb8 as of this week, the lowest in three years. Wu Hongliang, its chairman, is working overtime to raise cash, pledging many of the company’s shares in exchange for short-term loans.
“If Fan Bingbing’s tax problemdoesn’t reach a conclusion soon, it will put enormous pressure on Zhejiang Talent. Its risks in the capital markets should not be ignored,” Phoenix News grimly predicts.
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