A Hollywood helmer on location in Beijing attains his own personal nirvana in “Big Shot’s Funeral,” a slickly packaged, cross-cultural satire set amid the wild-west commercialism of modern-day China. Teaming popular Mainland comedian Ge You with a playfully relaxed Donald Sutherland, pic is an obvious but highly accessible entertainment that manages to josh its subjects without being condescending to either Eastern or Western auds. Already a considerable success since late last December at Mainland wickets — where Ge and director Feng Xiaogang are a brand-name B.O. team — film nevertheless presents a considerable challenge Stateside, due to the complete lack of marketing templates for mainstream China-set comedies.
“Big Shot” is a clear attempt by Columbia’s Hong Kong-based arm, Columbia Pictures Film Production Asia, to broaden its base in the West: Its slate has so far included arthouse fare (Zhang Yimou’s “Not One Less,” “The Road Home”), martial arts pix (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and Hong Kong actioners (“Time and Tide”). Though the $3.5 million production doesn’t rep a big investment financially for CPFPA, “Big Shot” is the riskiest of its slew of titles coming down the pike this year (thrillers “So Close” and “Double Vision,” plus costume adventure “Heroes of Heaven & Earth”).
Long-established as the Mainland’s biggest B.O. draw, Feng is little known outside Asiaphile circles, with even his most substantial satirical dramas, “Sorry Baby” (1999) and “Sigh” (2000), disregarded by myopic Western fests. He may be best known as actor/co-scripter of Wang Shuo’s shelved “Father” (1996), which finally saw the light of day at Locarno in 2000, copped the Golden Leopard prize and promptly disappeared again.
Though “Big Shot” is very much Feng Xiaogang Lite, it’s still a palatable brew with a cheeky aftertaste. For auds unaccustomed to comedian Ge’s dry, ironic humor, the main title sequence skillfully intros his slacker-ish shtick as the shaven-headed, goatee-bearded YoYo, a down-on-his-luck, divorced cameraman. YoYo is hired by no-nonsense Chinese-American Lucy (Rosamund Kwan) to make a 24/7 docu about her boss, the much-decorated Hollywood director Don Tyler (Sutherland).
Don has come to China to shoot a huge costume drama, “The Last Dynasty.” Unfortunately, months later, Don’s bored and distracted and badly behind sked, and in the middle of a large-scale scene in the Forbidden City he suddenly calls a wrap, claiming lack of inspiration.
Don, meanwhile, has become intrigued by YoYo, who doesn’t kiss ass and whose cynicism parallels his own. With Lucy as interpreter, the two strike up a weird friendship and the aging Don, reckoning his career is over, becomes obsessed with Buddhist reincarnation. The chemistry between Ge and Sutherland in these scenes has a mellow appeal that’s remarkable — two experienced thesps doing their own thing in different languages but connecting at a human level. As he showed in his L.A.-set romantic comedy, “Be There or Be Square,” Feng is one of those rare directors who can make multilingualism work in movies.
Studio boss Tony (Paul Mazursky), an old friend of Don’s, flies in from L.A. to say he’s sold the picture to a Japanese company, which wants to replace Don with a young musicvid director. After Don is fired, and feels a heart attack coming on, he entreats YoYo to organize a “comedy funeral” for him, Chinese-style, in Beijing.
YoYo is confused by the request, there being no such thing as a Chinese comedy funeral — Don misunderstood one of their conversations. But he takes on the responsibility out of respect for his friend.
Enter Louis King (sitcom director Ying Da), a concert promoter with more angles than the Pentagon, who suggests a modest event starting with Zhang Yimou directing “Turandot” (“just a couple of arias”), followed by a pop singer, then Chen Kaige and Gong Li awarding Don a posthumous Golden Rooster Award for lifetime achievement, topped off with a fireworks display. But when Lucy and YoYo realize Don left no money, they must seek sponsors, leading the pic on a merry satirical dance through contempo Mainland commercialization.
For viewers outside China, the targets of Feng’s humor will seem rather old-hat, with the main attraction seeing long-held Western attitudes grafted onto Mainland characters. But the script keeps coming up with enough outrageous ideas to keep it fresh, and the final reel pulls a few tricks on the viewer.
At the end of the day, however, the pic is little more than its surface. Feng’s best movies contain an emotional element that clicks in during the third act; but this (though hinted at in the fine scenes between YoYo and Don early on) fails to come through at any level.
Ge’s straight-faced humor is what drives the film, and he’s nicely balanced by Ying as the brazen entrepreneur and Sutherland recalling something of his old hippy days from “MASH.” Mazursky, in a smallish role, is also fine. The main casting weakness is Kwan, who, apart from sounding dubbed in both English and Mandarin, comes over as rather cold amid such colorful thesps. Considering she’s effectively been retired from movies since “Once Upon a Time in China and America” (1997), casting of the 39-year-old actress reps a curious decision.
Technically, the whole production is smooth, with a catchy title song from Chinese pop diva Faye Wong.