HONG KONG — Already a smash success in China, Columbia Pictures Film Prods. Asia (the Hong Kong arm of Sony Pictures Entertainment) is hoping the Mainland-made “Big Shot’s Funeral” finds similar fans as it begins its run in other parts of Asia this week and hits American screens via Sony later this year.
The film, helmed by popular Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, grossed more than $40 million reminbi ($4.8 million) on a $3.3 million budget. It’s not typical fare inside or outside of China: the film switches freely between English and Mandarin and lumps together veteran actors from different countries — Donald Sutherland, China’ s Ge You and Ying Da, Hong Kong’s Rosamund Kwan.
“Big Shot” follows the story of American director Don Tyler (Sutherland), who is filming in the Forbidden City when he utters what he believes is his dying wish to YoYo (Ge), a Chinese camerman hired to follow him. The film takes strange and funny turns as YoYo plans an elaborate “comedy funeral” — as per Tyler’ s wishes — with the help of his friend Louis King (Ying) by planning to televise it and selling ad space in preparation. Kwan plays Lucy, Tyler’s adopted daughter and personal assistant, while Paul Mazursky, the veteran American scriptwriter and director, plays Tyler’ s studio boss Tony.
Columbia’s biggest Asian hit was “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which garnered a lukewarm response in China despite winning kudos and audiences worldwide. Its string of recent Asian releases include Zhang Yimou’ s poetic “Not One Less” and Zhang Ziyi starrer “The Road Home,” as well as Tsui Hark’s action flick “Time and Tide.”
But it’s breaking tradition with “Big Shot,” which offers a vastly different view of Chinese society than most western moviegoers might be used to seeing. Chinese films that make it abroad are often set in the harsh climate of the countryside or austere surroundings lent by a certain dynastic period. They also tend to be helmed by arthouse directors like Chen Kaige or Zhang Yimou. In contrast, Big Shot is a comedy set in modern day Beijing and directed by one of China’ s most successful commercial directors.
Feng, 43, turned to comedy after realizing dramas had a smaller chance of making it past China’s heavy-handed censors. It was a smart move: three of his comedies, including “Be There or Be Square,” have been box office hits on the Mainland.
Feng isn’t bad at drama either though. “Sigh,” his movie about marital infidelity, took best film, best actor and best actress awards at the 2000 Cairo Intl. Film Festival.
Along with six films, Feng has also directed five television comedies and dramas. He’s also collaborated on projects with Wang Shuo, a popular and controversial Chinese novelist.
“Big Shot” is Feng’s commentary on how China’s love of commercialism is ruining it: in the film, as word spreads that companies can place their logos strategically at Tyler’s funeral site, advertising sales spiral beyond anyone’s imagination.
Feng expects audiences everywhere to relate to the problem of rampant commercialism, although experiences will have differed slightly. “Commercialism in the West was paced,” says Feng. “In China, it boomed. The main preoccupation is money. If someone didn’t relate to this film, I’d be curious to find out why.”
Feng believes the film’s greatest strength — its stars — may also be its biggest drawback. “Big Shot’s” leads are all big names in their respective markets, but few may be recognized outside of them. Still, if Feng can hit the right buttons with different audiences, it won’t matter where the stars come from or how well they’re known.