Big Shot's Funeral
Reviewed by Soh Yun-Huei
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Writing Credits: Feng Xiaogang, Li Xiaoming, Shi Kang
Cast: Ge You, Rosamund Kwan, Donald Sutherland, Ying Da, Paul Mazursky
Country: China, Hong Kong
Year Released: 2001
Runtime: 100 min
Rating: *** (out of four stars)
Big Shots Funeral (Da Wan) is an interesting collaboration between China and USA. Directed by Feng Xiaogang, one of the hot new directors in China, and funded partially by Sony Pictures USA (via its Hong Kong arm), Big Shots Funeral is a satire on the state of product placements and advertisements in the entertainment industry, and how two differing cultures may find teething problems when trying to work with each other. A genuinely funny movie, Big Shots Funeral features good performances from all three leads, and the only thing that mars the film is some surreptitious product placement effectively becoming what it satirizes.
Legendary director Don Tyler (Donald Sutherland) has embarked on his latest, ambitious project he plans to re-film Bernado Bertoluccis The Last Emperor. Filming commences in Beijing, and Tylers assistant, Lucy (Rosamund Kwan) hires a local cameraman, Yoyo (Ge You), to document Tylers shoot. Lucy is China-born, but received her education in the West hence, she acts as interpreter between Tyler and Yoyo, who seem to share similar viewpoints despite the cultural and language barrier. Things arent moving smoothly during the shoot, however, as Tyler begins to feel more and more disillusioned about the project. Tyler suddenly decides to call it quits, to the horror of longtime friend and production company bigwig, Tony (Paul Mazursky), who immediately flies down to Beijing to oversee the shoot.
Tony decides to replace Tyler with another director, although retaining Tylers name on the final product. Tyler grows even more despondent, and his health suffers. Through a slight communication breakdown, Tyler misunderstands Yoyo, and thinks that death for the elderly in China is a joyous occasion a "comedy funeral." Tyler makes Yoyo promise to give him a comedy funeral if the event of his death, before slipping into a coma. Yoyo feels responsible for the impending funeral, and gets good friend Louis (Ying Da) to help out. Louis, head of an event management company, goes all out to create a grand funeral for Tyler to be held at the Forbidden City. However, the two forget an important matter who is going to pay for the funeral? In a desperate attempt to secure funds, Louis and Yoyo starts selling product placements and advertisement space for the funeral to great success. Soon, the funeral resembles a carnival, chock-full of products and ads everywhere, and even space on Tylers body has been reserved. Things dont go as smoothly as planned, however, as a major kink occurs just when everything is about to be finalized. Can Yoyo salvage the situation, or will the pressures of the comedy funeral drive him to breaking point?
Big Shots Funeral has an interesting premise, and Feng Xiaogang milks it for all its comedic worth. The product placements border on the absurd, and as a Chinese, its much easier to appreciate how inappropriate these advertisements are in a Chinese-style funeral. However, the best scenes are not from these product placements, but rather the dialogue that transpires between the leads. Although Tyler and Yoyo are almost incapable of understanding each others language, they manage to communicate their views via sign language and stilted dialogue (and some help from Lucy). It is an interesting relationship, as is the one between Lucy and Yoyo, where the attraction for each other grows every time they meet, but is always kept under wraps because of the impending funeral. Also interesting is how Feng subtly works in issues about Sino-US relations in a particular scene we observe an American and Yoyo butting heads (literally), only later to see the two being buddy-ish after the scuffle.
Big Shot is also consistently good to look at, thanks to the beautiful cinematography by Zhang Li. The film is also augmented by a very appropriate original score by San Bao, and the theme song by Asian pop diva Faye Wong ("Moron") also suits the mood well. All three leads play their part well, with Ge You, unsurprisingly, being the one that stands out the most. He plays his part straight remaining poker-faced regardless of situation and yet this is the reason that makes Big Shot even more amusing to watch. Donald Sutherland is well suited to his role of the disillusioned auteur, and Rosamund Kwan, although also not a big role, is relatively proficient as the romantic foil to Ge You. Ying Da is rather droll in his portrayal of the Westernized Chinese businessman, and his presence onscreen tends to bring on the funnies.
Only in its final reel does Big Shot look slightly unsure. It seems as though Feng wanted a slightly more serious tone to the proceedings, which doesnt mesh well with the rest of the film. The final scene, however, reverts back to lighthearted fare, but the film doesnt really recover from the change in tone. Also, whilst Big Shot satirizes product placements, its ironic to see that real product placements have been worked into the film amidst the fake. This is not a crime, as product placements are everywhere, but to include these endorsements effectively turns Big Shot into the very thing it tries to lampoon. Still, Big Shots Funeral is an entertaining look at the entertainment industry and the state of modern China these days, and with a short running time of 90 minutes, doesnt outstay its welcome.
Final Word: A light-hearted satire that is sure to appeal to the masses, and its diverse cast helps with the "portability" of the movie across different cultures. Note that the film is in both English and Mandarin, but it comes with proficient subtitles in both languages as well.