When she first burst onto the scene in late 2003 Zhang Yu was unknown. Like an avenging angel she was armed with two audiotapes she said were recordings of a famed director caught with his pants down.
Zhang says that in 2002 she'd asked another woman to have sex with Huang Jianzhong as payment so she herself could be hired in Huang's movies or television projects. Huang claimed he didn't remember what happened that day because he was drunk.
That incident turned out to be a teaser as the tapes were scratchy and the voices were hard to recognize.
The counter attack came in 2004 when Huang and two other heavyweights wrote in an industry publication that Zhang Yu, in an unscrupulous attempt to seek roles, had picked a fight with a certain director's wife. Zhang claimed she had been raped by the woman's husband.
Zhang filed a defamation lawsuit early this year against the three directors. In May the court announced the directors had made remarks based on generally accepted social and moral standards and they didn't constitute libel. Zhang appealed and the original verdict was upheld.
In mid-November Zhang launched the biggest salvo by releasing online some of the 20 videotapes she maintained were recordings of her sexually bribing directors or casting directors. For the past weeks she's been talking non-stop to the media about the "darkness of China's entertainment industry" and said her intention was to "use my overt shamelessness to expose their covert shamelessness."
CASTING COUCH OF SHAME
The most oft-repeated phrase for this sleazy story is "the hidden rule" which Zhang asserts governs the casting of unknown young actresses. Bluntly they've to offer sex to those in power, usually the casting director, the director and the producer, in order to get a chance to lift the lid on China's glitz and glamour.
Industry insiders, who are asked for comment, tend to deny the existence of such a "rule." Some say they're not aware of it. Manfred Wong, chairman of Hong Kong Film Awards Association, acknowledges it but says only those who cannot gain roles through "normal channels" would trade sex. "This is the most disgusting incident of its kind," he adds.
Li Xiaolin, an official with China Filmmakers Association, goes a step further. The "hidden rule" applied to all industries and areas where one party needs to exchange something for another. But when it happened in the celebrity-fraught business of entertainment it was magnified as if the public was watching through a microscope.
Online feedback is split into roughly two camps. Those who question the validity of Zhang's evidence or are shocked that "revered artists" would stoop so low and those who aren't in the least surprised by the dirty laundry they knew was hidden there all along.
MOTIVATION FOR FULL DISCLOSURE
Zhang Yu, 30, originally from a poor farming community in Hubei Province, has always emphasized her motivation. She made the scandal public to "uncover the hidden rule" and "challenging the powers-that-be who exploit young women," those, who she says, have suffered the same fate but prefer to keep silent. Perhaps to her dismay she's not received much sympathy from the public.
Netizens generally jeer at her for her willingness to use her body for a possible career breakthrough and they believe she has personal motives for "breaking the rule."
For one thing there are little legal grounds for her stance as what she purportedly did with the entertainment bigwigs was between consenting adults. If anything she may have violated their privacy when she divulged intimate details about their meetings without their permission, say some legal analysts.
As for her motives Zhang has never really tried to cover that up and act as a victim. She admits she bought into the scheme, at first reluctantly, when it was repeatedly hinted that she'd to offer something in exchange for soap opera roles. But when she realized that many of them would renege on the promises she started taping their "trading scenes" for "self-protection." In other words she wasn't against the "hidden rule" but against those who didn't abide it.
When those who she threatened were not frightened she started using the media and law as levers. However, her fame or rather notoriety, came at a hefty price. Nobody would hire her as an actress anymore. Industry insiders call her "crazy for the spotlight" or simply "crazy."
Crazy or calculated she's timed her latest move to publicize her soon-to-be published memoir, said one newspaper report. Although many people don't feel sorry for her they support what she's done in slinging mud at the industry.
Zeng Zihang, a television producer, calls Zhang a "suicide bomber" who threw herself into the fortress of a male-dominated business.
"She may not have demolished the fortress but even the cracks she caused have revealed a seamy side of unmitigated desire and corruption and some truth about the naked barter between power and sex," he said.
Zhang was no longer a helpless victim when she opted to join the game. But she, like the countless young women who dream of being stars, is obviously at a disadvantage in such a rigged game. The benefits they ask for in return are not contractually protected. Her self-implosion has the benefit of reminding innocent people of the pervasive risks in a business as enticing as a siren's song.
"Why should a woman suffer in silence and accept all the unfair treatment?" Zhang asks in her blog statement. Despite a tainted image that is far from an ideal avatar of feminism she's used her own over-ambitious path to infamy to shed light on a ubiquitous practice. It's a taboo topic…the shady deals between men in power and women at their mercy.
Zhang asked for a 2,000 yuan (US$247) fee from a website that wanted her to make an appearance. Her request was denied. The website doesn't, as a rule, pay its guests to appear on its video productions. Her demand for 100,000 yuan (US$12,500) to appear at a commercial event was also rejected as "laughable."
This anecdote shows that Zhang is having a hard time profiting from her exposure. The only people to benefit from the scandal are a bunch of websites that posted her sex-for-trade video clips. Websites like Sina launched Olympian campaigns to promote and cover the story and registered hundreds of millions of clicks from online surfers.
Many analysts say that the unprincipled hyping of the story is the major reason it has been blown out of all proportion. And websites, which now lead the print media in this type of coverage, "have completely lost their sense of social responsibility," says Wang Xiao-feng, a cultural critic at Sanlian Life Weekly. "Their commercial success is achieved at the cost of ruining a public platform."
However, the lack of journalistic ethics isn't on the minds of those enjoying the media frenzy, who tend to view the ready-to-expose Zhang Yu vs I-don't-give-a-damn Big Director, as a spectacle of entertainment.
In fact one pundit simply calls Zhang, with only a handful of walk-on roles in her resume, "director of this year's biggest blockbuster."
"Zhang Yu has already segued into the most watched female lead, albeit only in her homemade pornographic movie," observes Zeng Zihang. "And at the same time she's reduced the Big Director to the status of her male lead."
(CRI November 23, 2006)