Jennifer Lawrence, Kim Kardashian, Scarlett Johansson. Imagine the seismic waves unleashed if U.S. A-list personalities like those went missing for three months without a trace.
Well, that’s exactly the scenario for China’s top actress Fan Bingbing, whose face had dominated Chinese screens and headlines for nearly two decades until early June, when she posted on website Weibo to 60 million followers for the last time before her mysterious disappearance.
“Hearts in love, the 9th year!” Fan, 37, wrote of her charity work for a children’s hospital. “This June, for the children, we depart with warm hearts!”
Fan’s disappearance followed a tax-evasion scandal in late May, when leaks of alleged copies of a domestic film contract she appeared to sign suggested that she reported to tax authorities pay of $1.5 million for four days of work, while a separate, shadow contract purportedly showed she actually received $7.3 million.
Chinese call such an arrangement a “yin-yang” contract, with the “yang” for public consumption and the “yin” for evading taxes.
Fan’s studio has denied any wrongdoing but the leaks have been devastating, amplified on social media after being exposed by Cui Yongyuan, an outspoken former state television anchor who himself has 16 million followers on Weibo.
Cui is said to have apologized to Fan for causing trouble because he actually didn't know whether authorities were involved. It would seem that they are because the State Administration of Taxation vowed in early June, without being specific, to crack down on “yin-yang” contracts in the film and entertainment industry.
Amid the scandal, however, there has been little media discussion of the elephant in the room: Where is Fan Bingbing?
Only a handful of people who have worked with Fan acknowledged her birthday publicly on Weibo last Sunday -- including a film director and a couple of minor celebrities -- but not her fiance, also a Chinese actor.
Fan, who set the beauty standard in China with her “melon seed”-shaped, oval face, was the highest-paid celebrity in China for four straight years and one of the highest-paid actresses in the world.
She has participated in Hollywood blockbusters such as “Iron Man” and “X-Men.” She visited Cannes in May for the high-profile, all-female action movie “355,” featuring the likes of Jessica Chastain.
“The severity of her misconduct aside, Fan is more likely to be used as an example to the morale-sapping Chinese entertainment circle, where tax evasion is common,” Afra Wang, a U.S.-based researcher and host of pop culture podcast “Loud Murmurs,” said of the accusation.
Fan’s enormous success and her disappearance, Wang argued, make her a “femme fatale,” a stereotypical classic Hollywood character who embodies seduction and immorality.
An official with the Public Security Bureau of Wuxi, where Fan’s studio is based, told The New York Times the bureau speaks “with one voice from top to bottom,” with no comment.
The government has recently imposed pay caps on actors in an effort to crack down on tax evasion and “money worshipping” in the industry. Fan’s case “probably manifests the current administration's inherent hostility against mass entertainment, even it's under iron-fisted rules,” Wang wrote in an email to ABC News.
Some brand names have either distanced themselves from Fan or completely abandoned her as an ambassador. Famed Chinese director and actor Feng Xiaogang, whose film started the trouble for Fan, might have also suffered repercussions, with the removal of his cameo appearance in a much-anticipated new film released Friday, for instance.
Feng is known as China's answer to director Steven Spielberg.
The mystery keeps evolving as fans noted a brief moment this week when Fan’s Weibo account was active online and when a court in Chaoyang District, Beijing, made public Thursday several allegations involving Fan about the right to use another person’s face for commercial purposes without permission.
But, still, there’s no trace of Fan to be found.
Her fans continue to stand by her and have attempted to clean up the muddied pond of information, publishing their own investigations of what they call groundless rumors.
“Despite severely demonized by the internet,” a fan group posted on Weibo on her birthday, “she always smiles through with tolerance.”