To coincide with the publication of World Film Locations: Beijing from Intellect Books, co-editor John Berra reviews six Beijing-set films to illustrate how China’s ever-changing capital city has inspired commercial and independent filmmakers alike, from the 1990s to today.
Feng Xiaogang has achieved such consistent box office success in mainland China with his humorous crowd-pleasers, that he has created his own genre: ‘Feng comedy’. This term summarises the director’s approach to entertaining the masses by peppering farcical situations with sharp references to social trends, thereby commenting on transformative society in light-hearted fashion. The Dream Factory (1997), Be Here or Be Square (1998), and Sorry Baby (1999) note the changes in China’s urban fabric through comedic narratives, but Feng’s most ambitious film of this period in his career is arguably Big Shot’s Funeral which takes aim at a more global target: capitalism. YoYo (Ge You) is an out-of-work cameraman who gets a break when hired to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of a Beijing-based Hollywood production. The director is Don Tyler (Donald Sutherland), an industry legend who is shooting a new version of the life of Emperor Puyi because he feels that Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) pandered to the exoticist preferences of Western audiences. Tyler and YoYo become friends, with the director’s assistant Lucy (Rosamund Kwan) translating their exchanges. However, the director has doubts about his vision and falls behind schedule, leading the studio to remove him from the picture. Tyler faints and is left comatose, but before doing so, asks YoYo to arrange a ‘comedy funeral’ for him. YoYo plans to honour Tyler’s wishes, but it is not long before the occasion becomes monetised as, due to Tyler’s fame, YoYo is able to attract an abundance of commercial sponsors.
Although largely relegated to direct-to-DVD status in the West after a few contractual theatrical engagements, Big Shot’s Funeral is actually the forerunner of the current trend for co-productions between China and the United States. China Film Group and the Asia division of Columbia Pictures partnered on the project, while Sutherland’s casting predates the appearances of Christian Bale in The Flowers of War (2011) and Kevin Spacey in Inseparable (2011). Although the American backer had previously part-funded The Road Home (2000) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), this was its first production to utilise a recognisable imported star, with dialogue alternating between Chinese and English. The same formula would later be applied to Double Vision (2002), with David Morse as an FBI agent hunting a serial killer in Taipei, but works more seamlessly here: Big Shot’s Funeral positions Beijing as a rapidly emerging international zone, with foreigners passing through on business, keenly aware that China is the next major market. Commercialization runs rampant as, even before YoYo has started selling funeral-related advertising space, Feng has the child actor playing the emperor swigging from a bottle of coke between takes. Recent films such as If You Are the One (2008) have found Feng smoothly integrating product sponsorship, with characters wearing Ralph Lauren and flying with Heian Air, but Big shot’s Funeral ridicules the free market rush of the early-2000s, when Chinese companies would advertise products or services anywhere, no matter how seemingly inappropriate. Soon, the Ancestral Temple has become a commercial mecca.
Feng’s satire of consumer China was regarded as spot-on when Big Shot’s Funeral was released, with merchants flocking to YoYo once they realise that Tyler’s funeral is likely to reach an unprecedented worldwide audience, yet it was also prescient in its commentary on the balance between commercialism and credibility. Zhang Yimou is suggested as the director for the opening act of the ceremony, a role that the Fifth Generation would undertake for the Olympic Games in 2008, while a rough animation sketch of the performance predicts China’s much-discussed soft power as Tyler is shown being reincarnated in Chinese form and once again growing up to be a director, presumably of films that promote the values of the People’s Republic. Some of the advertising strategies are hilariously crass, with a live television auction being held to sell the space: the bidding of major corporations and ambitious start-ups becomes a spectator sport as they compete to secure prime spots. Many of the brands featured in the film are the real thing, reflecting the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity in consumer culture, but the one product that does take a beating is the DVD player largely exclusive to the Chinese market that auto-corrects defective discs, making it the ideal machine for those who prefer to buy pirated goods. YoYo controversially declines a bid from a manufacturer out of respect for Tyler’s filmmaking legacy, but subsequently struggles to keep a clear head due to the scale of his spectacle.
It’s a carnival that works because of the main players: Ge embodies the everyman entrepreneur, his deadpan delivery acknowledging the absurdity of his enterprise, while rationalising the pursuit of its commercial value. In one of his many collaborations with Feng, the actor has fun with the director’s trademark plays on language, resulting in some amusing banter with romantic foil Kwan. When asked about his most recent job while being interviewed for the position of cameraman, YoYo replies that he was, ‘Shaganded’, a term that the Mandarin-fluent, but American-raised, Lucy is not familiar with, requiring YoYo to explain that, ‘It means I have a lot of free time.’ He is ably supported by Kwan, who looks delectable even when exasperated, and Ying, who offers a spot-on impersonation of the kind of crass businessmen that bemoans the lack of recent natural disasters because benefit concerts are a guaranteed money-spinner. Yet this farce is arguably elevated by the presence of Sutherland, whose charming performance as a Hollywood director at odds with his backers not only riffs on the actor’s association with the New Hollywood Cinema of the 1970s, but suggests such auteurs-within-the-system as Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, and Francis Ford Coppola, without resorting to a specific impersonation. Unfortunately, these characters can only go as far as the central conceit will allow, and once Tyler’s recovery is revealed to the world, their antics abruptly stalls as Feng imposes a somewhat unconvincing resolution. Third act stumble aside, Big Shot’s Funeral is a broadly satirical delight.