Fan Bingbing movie opens at last - in the US

SHANGHAI • Actor Bruce Willis knew he was not in Hollywood anymore.

When his private jet landed in China three years ago for the shooting of Air Strike, the film crew did not have the money to pay the deposit for his hotel room.

The plot - behind the film, that is - only thickened.

The original producer fled the country after his business got caught up in a peer-to-peer lending scandal, leaving director Xiao Feng, who retold the story of Willis' hotel deposit on his blog, to tap his own savings to finish the film.

Then Fan Bingbing, one of the top Chinese stars in the movie, went missing after becoming embroiled in a tax-evasion scandal that shook the industry.

Despite all that drama, the movie opened in select theatres in the United States last Friday through a partner of distributor Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.

In China, it is unclear whether the most scandal-plagued film in recent memory will be able to capitalise on the publicity - even if it was negative. It was supposed to debut in China on Aug 17, but the release was then postponed to last Friday before it was pushed back indefinitely.

The movie's initial producer Shi Jianxiang had other problems as well.

In 2016, he seemed to hit pay dirt when Ip Man 3 (2015), a gongfu drama he backed starring Donnie Yen and Mike Tyson, had some success in theatres.

The problem was the movie's box-office figures were found to have been inflated, which led shares in companies affiliated with Mr Shi to crater.

Mr Shi also ran peer-to-peer lending operations under his Shanghai Kuailu Investment Group, which failed to pay investors. As scrutiny over that business intensified, he fled the country with Air Strike still in production.

Last month, prosecutors told a Shanghai court that Mr Shi's companies illegally raised more than 40 billion yuan (S$8 billion), according to the Shanghai government-run Xinmin Evening News.

Then there's the tax scandal surrounding Fan, one of China's highest-paid actresses.

Her woes began when a former talk-show host posted contracts on his social media feed that allegedly showed the actress had concealed some of her income.

Fan then disappeared from public view. After months of speculation in China, she reappeared only after the government said she had been found guilty of under-reporting income - including from Air Strike.

Tax authorities imposed one of the biggest fines in China's entertainment industry. Fan apologised publicly and agreed to cover her fines and back taxes.

It is unclear how the incidents involving Fan and Mr Shi would have affected the box office of Air Strike in China had it opened there as scheduled.

But one thing is certain: Chinese moviemakers will draw lessons from the film's scandals.

"China's film industry is still undergoing a rectification that will last well into 2019," said Dr Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California political science professor who studies China.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 29, 2018, with the headline 'Fan Bingbing movie opens at last - in the US'. Print Edition | Subscribe