Being from California means never having to be impressed by celebrity. At least thats what I thought before I met Fan Bing Bing. As it turns out fame is impressive, and spectacularly decadent when seen from up close. Though admittedly my frame of reference is skewed: I'm not from L.A. and had never known a movie star before her. Bing Bing was my first, and an unexpected one at that. But by the end of our year together she had given me entrance into a world most can only know by the glow of their television screen. A world populated by starlets and gangsters and defined by money and privilege and, above all, an unrelenting quest for power.
I hadn't even heard of Fan Bing Bing when they called me into her office at Dongsishitiao in central Beijing in late 2008. The Olympics had just ended and the city was in a state of collective regret (or relief, depending on where you were living). There she was, lounging on an oversized sofa pilled high with stuffed animals and bean-bag toys. She was dressed in a pair of stonewashed denim overalls and smiling infectiously. She wore no makeup. I was instructed to sit across the room, next to a small end table adorned with a Hello Kitty lamp. I felt underdressed and sweaty in the late September heat. Bing Bing was undeniably cool and attractive on all levels.
An English speaking PR agent acted as intermediary as I stumbled through the interview. No, I hadn't heard of her before. Yes, I had a girlfriend. Yes, I was comfortable traveling for long periods of time. No, I didn't have a visa to legally work in China. Yes, Jackie Chan was my favorite Chinese actor. Bing Bing was easy to talk to and after the interview I felt elated: I would begin work the following week as English tutor to one of China's biggest movie stars. Walking home along the Workers Stadium Road I smugly thought that my ambivalence to her fame must have been what sold me. I'm from California where we don't care about celebrities.
Ms. Fan’s intention in hiring me was to improve her English language skills in order to access work opportunities in markets outside China, specifically Hollywood. Other mainland actresses––namely Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li––had already successfully crossed over and Fan Bing Bing wanted to be next. This would require a basic grasp of English––at least enough to memorize a script––and a lot of hard work on behalf of her management and PR team. Fan Bing Bing was huge in Asia, but other than the quiet success of her 2007 indie 'Lost in Beijing' at the Berlin Film Festival, she was all but unknown to the West.
Looking back now I see that in many ways Bing Bing had already jumped the shark. She was the archetypal Chinese star: diversified by design (among the hats she wore were those of pop singer, actress, producer, designer, model and educator) and well versed in the interplay between communist officialdom and entertainment, Bing Bing was too established to start afresh in L.A. To date this has been confirmed by her failure to appear in a single Hollywood release, even having her performance cut from the U.S. version of Iron Man 3.
Over the course of the year we worked together, however, I was witness to a concerted effort (of which I was a key component) to break Bing Bing out of the Chinese market. This included photo shoots and dinners with Oliver Stone, an endorsement deal with Louis Vuitton, press releases emphasizing her improved language skills, and an ultimately doomed experiment in French indie filmmaking that began as a practice run for English-language acting and ended with the death of David Carradine in a Bangkok hotel room. Carradine's tragic end while filming the low budget feature 'Stretch' was deemed accidental––the result of a dangerous autoerotic asphyxiation habit––but the same could be said of the handling of Bing Bing's international film career by her management: they may have squeezed too tight before the climax.
Filmmaking in Mainland China at the time––by necessity an extension of the Hong Kong establishment––was, to my eyes, a throw-back to the golden age of Hollywood when stars and starlets were property of the studios, directors were little more than hired hands, and big men with low profiles were the real bosses of the movie lot. Bing Bing, who had little say over the roles she took or the products she endorsed, was constantly worked to the point of exhaustion, rarely sleeping and eating only what was allowed by her strict diet of water, fruit and a sensible dinner. She was rich, one the richest women in China according to Forbes' List, but she was also the cash cow for a host of behind-the-scenes players who, regardless of any stated aspirations for Western success, were going to need to get paid now, in China and in cash. For them it made no difference if she was sharing scenes with Gwyneth Paltrow or selling light bulbs in Shanxi: a quick return on an aging sex symbol (Bing Bing was already 28-yeas-old) took precedent.
But perhaps I'm missing the point. With the rise of feature film and TV production in China could it be that Hollywood no longer holds the draw, or relevance, to demand the world's talent? Maybe Bing Bing's predestined crossover was never intended to materialize, just another piece of the elaborate PR jigsaw dreamed up by her minders to elevate the star's profile and further tap the pockets of domestic companies. As more and more Hollywood films locate their production in China we may be looking at a new era of collaborative entertainment manufacturing aimed at appeasing both of the worlds key consumer markets in a single product. For my part I feel lucky to have been there on the cusp of change in the business, and at the side of one of its biggest talents and warmest souls. For all the glamour and excess Bing Bing wasn’t vain: she was loyal and devoted to the small family of employees that formed her ever-present entourage, and of which I was part. But she was image obsessed and in some way I think I fed into that. Perhaps by explicating the unglamorous contours of celebrity I was somehow validating her dedication to the craft of acting, and her place in the larger machine we call fame.
范小姐雇佣我的初衷在于帮助她提英语水平，以便在海外市场获取更多工作机会，尤其是好莱坞。一些中国女演员，如章子怡、巩俐，已经成功做到了这一点，而范冰冰，想成为下一个。这需要她具备一些基本的英语技能，例如背诵英文剧本。在此基础上，她的经纪及公关团队便可大展拳脚，全力助其进军国际影坛。在亚洲电影界，她的知名度是毋庸置疑的。然而，除却其主演的独立电影《苹果（Lost in Beijing）》入围了2007年柏林电影节主竞赛单元影片之外，冰冰在国际影坛并无建树，也不被西方电影界所熟知。
在为其进行英语培训的一年中，我作为其中重要的一环，也见证了为了将冰冰推向国际市场的一切努力。这其中包括大片拍摄、与奥利佛·斯通（Oliver Stone）共进晚宴、为路易威登（Louis Vuitton）代言合同的签订、召开以传递其英文水平有了长足进步为主旨的新闻发布会以及在一部法国独立电影中试水英文演出（最终却因男主演大卫·卡拉丁（David Carradine）在曼谷酒店的死亡而不了了之）等等等等。卡拉丁因自慰窒息意外身亡悲剧式也让这部名为《Stretch》的中小成本电影的无端结束被看成了是一个偶然。但对冰冰来说，卡拉丁的死亡却可能有着更深一层次的昭示，因为她和她的经纪团队在不遗余力的推进其进入海外电影市场时，也犯了类似的错误，因用力过猛而导致在高潮来临前早已窒息。