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Fan Bingbing, “Yin-Yang Contracts”, and Alleged Tax Evasion: Will the Scandal Change China’s Film Industry?

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Salacious celebrity gossip isn’t our usual staple here at RADII, but a recent Fan Bingbing-featuring scandal is both too big and too interesting in terms of the insights it’s thrown up for us to ignore.

The controversy has not only shone a light on some of the alleged practices of China’s film industry and the country’s super rich, but has also led to some awkwardness for a number of parties not involved in the initial genesis of the story.

And — let’s be honest — with its mix of apparent revenge, huge sums of money, alleged tax evasion, and some of China’s biggest stars, it is a particularly juicy scandal.

A poster for Feng Xiaogang’s 2004 film Cell Phone

Things kicked off last week when TV presenter and self-styled truth talker Cui Yongyuan took aim at China’s highest-paid actress Fan Bingbing (best known in the West for her role as Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past) and award-winning director Feng Xiaogang (Youth, Aftershock).

Cui published Weibo posts with photos of what he said was a contract showing the sum of 10 million RMB ($1.56 million USD) being paid to Fan for just four days work on the Feng-directed film Cell Phone 2. The contract also featured some classic diva demands ranging from the freedom to edit her lines as she saw fit to the right of refusal on hair stylists and insisting on having two limousines at her disposal.

It was the kind of thing that naturally sets tongues wagging and keyboards clicking about how overpaid and entitled certain stars can be. Yet as eye-watering as some of the sums involved were, a film star earning obscene amounts of money for doing not a lot wasn’t a huge shock. But then Cui dropped the real bombshell: a second contract showing a payment of 50 million RMB for the exact same work.

“Why the need to sign two contracts?” – one of Cui’s Weibo posts

Why the two contracts? Cui implied that only the smaller of the two would be shown to the authorities, thus incurring a much lower rate of tax than would be taken from a total payment of 60 million RMB. The internet lit up.

Fan Bingbing, meanwhile, lawyered up. Her representatives reacted furiously, demanding an apology from Cui and denying any impropriety on the part of their client. For his part, Cui did issue an apology of sorts, stating that he’d meant to Photoshop Fan’s name out of the second contract (it seems he may have missed one mention of her name) but that he wasn’t very familiar with the programme; he’s also since said that he wasn’t intentionally looking to hurt Fan herself, but expose the general practice of so-called “Yin-Yang contracts” (rumor has it that this statement came after Fan phoned Cui directly and tearily pleaded with him to halt his apparent crusade).

The authorities have said they’re investigating, but as Variety reports, the fall-out from the scandal potentially has ramifications well beyond some of the named key players:

The disclosure was an embarrassment for both Fan and for China’s media regulators. Last year, five government agencies issued directives urging media companies to focus on culture rather than celebrity, and moved to rein in runaway paydays for stars. As part of last year’s supposed crackdown, the China Alliance of Radio Film and Television issued guidelines that sought to limit on-screen performers’ pay to 40% of a production’s total cost. It also sought to cap the leading star’s pay at a maximum of 70% of total payments to cast. The Yin-Yang contracts appear to be a way to skirt those rules.

Cui, known for his straight-talking style (he used to host a show called Tell It Like It Is) is clearly in combative mood, as a series of TV interviews he gave late last week and his continued Weibo pronouncements over the weekend demonstrated (Chinese only, no subtitles):

Cui’s motives here aren’t necessarily as altruistic as they may first appear. The character at the heart of the original Cell Phone movie from 2004, played by Ge You, is widely seen as being based on Cui. Yet the presenter, who initially quit the spotlight abruptly in 2002 having been diagnosed with depression, claims that the film took a major toll on his personal life due to its depiction of mistresses and scandal — elements which he says are major deviations from actual events.

When news of a sequel emerged, Cui apparently reached out to some of those involved to ask them to reconsider given the potential impact on his family. Screenshots of text messages posted to the presenter’s Weibo purportedly between himself and screenwriter Liu Zhenyun show that he was given assurances that the film would not be called Cell Phone 2, but would be named 朋友圈 (“Friend Feed”) and would be “about a different person” examining issues of internet culture.

So when Fan posted selfies on the set of Cell Phone 2, it’s fair to say Cui wasn’t exactly impressed.

Fan — largely through her lawyers and PR reps — continues to protest her innocence regarding any alleged tax irregularities, the authorities have said they’re looking into the issue, and Cui says he’s waiting for the investigators’ call (on his cell phone presumably).

But the story still doesn’t quite end there (and in fact looks set to run for a while yet).

On Sunday, CCTV reported that the State Administration of Taxation had ordered the relevant bureaus to “investigate and verify online allegations that TV and film actors evaded taxes by signing two contracts,” adding that anyone found guilty of breaking the law will be “punished accordingly.”

This caused stock prices for some of China’s biggest film studios to tumble, as investors seemingly feared a wide-ranging investigation and the potential for more scandals to be exposed. Cui meanwhile, somewhat gleefully posted the stock fall to his Weibo:

In fact Cui’s Weibo posts continue to be a feature of this story. While Fan’s personal account — usually a regular blitz of glamorous selfies and inane product endorsements — has fallen silent in recent days and talk of the story remains suspiciously inconspicuous on Weibo’s list of trending topics, Cui continues to stoke the fires of this scandal, reporting on the reports of his actions.

And, he says, he has plenty more “unusual” contracts that he’s ready to expose, likely sending film stars across the country into something of a panic. There’s already been enough twists and turns and scandal in this for a pretty tasty film script, but something tells us we haven’t quite reached the final scenes of the story just yet.

Cover image: Fan Bingbing in Cannes last month (Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com)

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Jake Newby
Jake Newby is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with more than a decade's experience living and working in China. Previously managing editor of Time Out Shanghai, he's also written for publications such as South China Morning Post and the Financial Times.

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