In 1978, two years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, a French-Italian co-production of Zorro secured cinematic release in China.
Films made purely for entertainment were a rarity at that time in China and foreign films even more so.
Millions crowded to the cinemas to see it and many were left transfixed by the appeal of its lead actor, Alain Delon. He left a deep impact: in 2014 the China Daily ranked him number one in a list of foreign movie stars that “China loves”.
Today Delon is 86 and lives with his beloved dogs in a sprawling residential compound near the Swiss city of Geneva.
This week many Chinese fans were surprised to learn the French actor plans to end his life by assisted suicide.
The news comes against renewed discussion of a law to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill patients at the ‘Two Sessions’ parliamentary gathering in Beijing earlier this month.
This time the proposal – which has come up twice before – was made by a Liu Guifeng, a rural doctor and delegate to the National People’s Congress.
“I have seen with my own eyes the painful state of some patients suffering from incurable diseases… people should have the right to end their suffering,” she told the China Youth Daily.
As China’s population ages the issue of how to provide dignity at the end of life will become more pressing – which is perhaps why many were fascinated to read that Delon appears to have plans for assisted suicide even though he is not known to have a terminal illness.
Over the years Delon has expressed his support for assisted dying many times though the recent headlines come from an interview with his son who confirmed his father plans to die that way.
Delon – who suffered two strokes in 2019 – has frequently complained about the indignities of getting old. As recently as last summer he told French TV that he would like to be in one more film before he dies. He has given no date for his planned death.
When news of his son’s interview hit Sina Weibo, many posted images of Delon as a young man with his piercing blue eyes in full focus or with a cigarette hanging from his lower lip. Among those older than 50 years of age there was a wave of nostalgia in many of the postings, where recollections abounded of how Delon’s stunning good looks impacted an entire generation. More surprising was the fact that younger people also began to join the social media discussions about Delon, particularly as the bulk had never heard of him prior to last weekend.
“I applaud his decision to choose how he goes,” wrote one young user. “He is lucky to live in Switzerland where it is legal,” said another.
Delon has visited China several times since the release of Zorro, making his first trip in 1987 with French designer Pierre Cardin and more recently in 2010 when he toured the French Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo with President Nicolas Sarkozy. When President Xi Jinping made a state visit to France in 2019, the actor attended a dinner in honour of China’s leader given by President Emmanuel Macron and his wife.
Such is Delon’s popularity in China that state media reported on his eightieth birthday six years ago.
And when a collection of the actor’s watches was sold at auction in Paris in 2012, Chinese buyers pushed the bids many times higher than the original estimates.
Around the same time, a sale of Delon’s wines, collected over many years, sold for more than double the auctioneer’s estimate thanks to the buying activities of a Chinese businessman named Dong Guo.
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