Back to Love of Sun | 回去

Rian Dundon's Fan

Jonathon Landreth

 

 Rian Dundon
© 2013 by Rian Dundon

 

FAN, a new book of Rian Dundon’s black and white photographs of the starlet Fan Bingbing captures a side of life few get to see outside China.

Dundon, an American from California was shooting pictures for TIME.com in China when a friend asked if he wanted to tutor an actress in English. He’d never heard of Fan and didn’t understand what he was getting himself into. 

In October 2008, Dundon met Fan with her then-new manager, Mu Xiaoguang, and said he’d take the job as long as he’d be allowed to shoot pictures, too. Soon they headed off together to a beauty pageant in the coastal city of Qingdao.

“It was madness. Beatlemania,” said Dundon, recalling that Mu—a Shandong transplant to Taiwan, where commercialized stardom got a jump of several decades on the mainland—drew him aside, looked him in the eye and said: “I told you I would show you her power.”

For the next nine months Fan—a Shandong girl who first became famous in television series of the early 2000s produced by the Huayi Brothers in Beijing—spent nearly every waking hour with Dundon, eighty percent of it on the road—flying to Macau, Hong Kong, Bangkok—living in hotels and hopping from one banquet to another.

Dundon went from virtual stranger to constant sidekick. He was seldom a tutor, at least not formally. Learning a second language was supposed to help land Fan Hollywood roles and, at the same time, help market the image of the new China to the outside world in synch with demands being made from on high within the Chinese Communist Party.

 

Rian Dundon

© 2013 by Rian Dundon

 But Fan, then 27 years old, was the product of the specialized education given to performers trained from a young age to help sell products, images, a lifestyle. As China’s economy slows from 30 years of roughly 10 percent annual growth, the Party is trying to hang on to power by guiding the country stably away from shrinking manufacturing and exports to growing domestic consumption.

Fan, because of her unusually big eyes, her high nose, her height, her slender figure and her poise, is a sharp and shiny tool to sell a consumerist dream. Mu has helped turn Fan into an idol and she’s let him.

When Dundon met his pupil, Fan had less English than she might if she'd been through China's regular school system. She knew words like ‘villa’ and ‘Louis Vuitton’ but not a whole lot else,” Dundon said. She wanted to learn English by osmosis. “

But Fan and Mu were a strong team in leveraging her image, one over which she maintained editorial control most of the time. Mu wanted Dundon to capture Fan in candid pictures—and there she is in his book eating grilled lamb on a stick; going incognito through a construction site under a floppy-eared hat; pausing between takes on set, looking straight into the camera, eyes wet—with what? exhaustion? pain?

Rian Dundon

© 2013 by Rian Dundon

Dundon’s images are raw and at times lonely, capturing Fan sitting solo at a table strewn with Styrofoam take-out boxes. Dundon also chronicles a handful of all of the thousands of other sanctioned images of Fan, the commercial images that appear seemingly everywhere in China: on billboards, on the cover of 300-page glossy women’s magazines, on packaging for fruit cups and hosiery, on in-store poster ads for lamps, on ads for skin creams wrapped around diesel delivery trucks.

A Western prop brought on to enhance Fan’s image of global fame to her teeming, adoring fans—China’s new and fast-burgeoning consumer class—Dundon didn’t get around to developing his film until months after they parted in June 2009.

What he’d captured is the feel of the breakneck pace at which China is changing and the intensity of the hopes so many young people are pinning on Fan and others like her. Oh, to be the successful, the glamorous, the truly famous and accomplished.  Oh, to be Bingbing.

Through it all, Fan—who Dundon said is “not the monster she’s made out to be” in the Chinese tabloids (“She was never aloof or aloft, never above the people she worked with”)—emerged a business woman who launched her own soap opera production studio, produced her own pop albums and was, at last, meeting stars whose images and power, unlike hers—at least not yet—were spread not only all across China, but circled the globe.

One photograph that sticks out of Dundon’s collection for viewers who know Hollywood but are just getting to know China, is a picture of Fan with director Oliver Stone. “Stone walked straight across the dressing room and squeezed her tight and kissed her neck,” Dundon said.  “She was gracious but clearly uncomfortable, as we all were.”

-Landreth / 27 July 2013

 

About Jonathon Landreth:

Jonathan Landreth reported freelance from Beijing from 2004 to 2012 for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The China Economic Quarterly, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Hollywood Reporter—all with a focus on China’s media and entertainment industries.

From 2000 to 2004, Landreth reported for Reuters in Singapore and New York. Prior to becoming a journalist, he worked as an editor of non-fiction books at Henry Holt & Company in New York. He is proficient in Mandarin and holds a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley and an M.S. from Columbia University.