In her prime: Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing wants to make up for lost time after four-year hiatus
Chinese actress Fan Bingbing may have taken a long leave of absence from the silver screen for the past four years, but she is finally making her comeback with the feminist thriller Green Night.
The 42-year-old star is in town to receive the Cinema Icon Award at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), which runs until Dec 10.
At a sit-down interview at Marina Bay Sands on Dec 1, she tells The Straits Times that her break from acting has been both a pity and a blessing.
“I think the worst part was that I didn’t accomplish what I had envisioned for myself during my prime as an actress. To be honest, I think my 20s were not when I peaked as an actress. I was too young then and I had a relatively shallow understanding of things around me, and the characters I played,” she says in Mandarin.
Fan kept out of the limelight after a tax evasion scandal in 2018 derailed her career in China, where projects she had lined up were shelved indefinitely.
But she says the hiatus also gave her time to reflect and recharge.
“About seven or eight years ago, I thought I’d retire at 42. I was like, ‘Acting is so tiring, so I’ll be like those Hong Kong stars who retire at their peak and let people remember me at my most beautiful,’ she says.
“But now, I think performing is a job and a dream you can pursue continuously. There are roles for people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. And if you’re healthy and able to, you can act even when you’re 80. Using the time I have to make up for the time lost over the past few years is not a bad thing.”
Fan was known for Chinese projects such as period series My Fair Princess (1998 to 1999) and psychological thriller Double Xposure (2012), as well as Hollywood blockbusters such as superhero film X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014).
Her last major project was action spy thriller The 355 (2022), which was shot in 2019 and starred Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz, Diane Kruger and Lupita Nyong’o.
As part of its Icon in Focus segment, SGIFF will screen three of Fan’s works – Green Night, Double Xposure and Buddha Mountain (2010) – during its festival.
In Green Night, helmed by Chinese director Han Shuai, Fan plays a Chinese immigrant living in South Korea who is struggling with an abusive relationship. She encounters and becomes enchanted with a wayward green-haired girl, played by South Korean actress Lee Joo-young.
About 40 per cent of Fan’s dialogue is in Korean. She also recently had a cameo in the K-drama Insider (2022).
When asked if she is interested in entering the South Korean market, Fan says she does have a management agency in the country, but that learning the language is tough.
Fan, who is also exploring a return to Hollywood movies and possibly a French collaboration, says: “Working globally just means you often have to pick up new languages and that can be very challenging.”
She adds: “My younger brother (Chinese idol Fan Chengcheng) is very into K-pop and I do think that South Korean content like Squid Game (2021) and Parasite (2019) is the new cultural powerhouse. I think there are very few limits on the topics they can touch on in their projects, and their industry is very encouraging of diverse stories which has really helped them move forward. That’s something I envy.”
Green Night also marks a fresh challenge for Fan, who shares risque scenes with Lee. But the star waves away the passionate same-sex scenes.
She adds: “Maybe some people will say, ‘Oh, Fan Bingbing is doing this deliberately (as a gimmick).’ But this has been something that I feel was in the works within me for a long time. Love knows no gender. I can completely understand having a deep emotional relationship with someone regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman.”
But the self-confessed “lian ai nao” – or “love brain”, a Chinese slang that describes someone who places romance above all else when he or she is in love – is in no hurry to settle down.
With a laugh, she says: “When I was 28 or 29, I really looked forward to marriage. But I think a lot of Chinese women are increasingly scared of getting married because divorce rates are high and they don’t feel a sense of security.
“There’s a popular saying in Chinese: ‘You think you’ve found a man to shelter you from the storm, it turns out he’s the storm.’ When you can make your own money and be independent, life might be easier alone.”
Fan went public with Chinese actor Li Chen in 2015. The couple got engaged in 2017, but called it quits in 2019.
Since then, she has not confirmed any other relationship.
Nonetheless, Fan’s life is glitzy and jet-setting.
A red-carpet favourite and fashion icon, she stunned in brilliant green Tony Ward couture at the Oscars in 2023. She was also a vision at the SGIFF opening night at Shaw House on Nov 30 when she showed up in a dramatic black Stephane Rolland gown with giant bows running down the back.
Amid the heavy rain, fans crowded the venue for a glimpse of the star, screamed her name and tried to get her autograph.
“Fans in Singapore are very passionate – maybe because there are Chinese studying here and many (Chinese Singaporeans) who know Chinese films and television series. A lot of people say they watched me act growing up, which is just chilling to think about,” she jokes.