Big Shot’s Funeral is a sprawling modern day fable where East meets West on a movie set. The film centers on American auteur Tyler (Donald Sutherland), directing a remake of Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor in Beijing’s Forbidden City. As he struggles with the logistics, he also struggles with a familiar dilemma: can he make true art without being tainted by money?
Tyler wants to make a great film, but, with all the expectations of the current project, feels he’s lost his usual touch. Part of this problem, he explains to his assistant, Lucy (Rosamund Kwan), is that he just can’t get into the mind of the Last Emperor, because, after all, he’s a Westerner. And neither can she, he decides, because she is American born. Only a Chinese native can truly “understand.” With this in mind, Tyler seeks counsel from Yoyo (Ge You), a cameraman Lucy’s recently hired to shoot a behind the scenes documentary.
A pony-tailed eccentric, spouting bits of Eastern and Western philosophy, Tyler idealizes and exoticizes the Far East (much in the same way that Bertolucci did with his film). In seeking out Yoyo as the “authentic” Chinese witness, Tyler also idealizes him, while creating tension between Lucy and Yoyo. She can mingle freely between both cultures, and knows it. Yoyo, by contrast, speaks only a little English, stuttering over the few words he knows.
Tyler’s ignorance is one thing; his self-consciousness and fear of failure are another. Even as he sinks into a depression and considers abandoning the project, his investors sense trouble and offer the film to another director. The news causes Tyler to have a stroke. As he collapses, he deliriously asks Yoyo to film him, begging, on camera, to make him a “comedy funeral” when he dies. When Tyler lapses into a coma, Yoyo sets to planning a lavish, whimsical event.
Yoyo must figure out how to finance such a production. He and his spastic marketing guru friend Louis (Da Ying) come up with the bright idea of bringing in advertisers to sponsor the funeral. The pairing of the taciturn Yoyo and hyperactive Louis makes for the film’s funniest moments. After scoring a spot to televise the funeral on Chinese TV, they hold an auction for sponsors to bid on the rights to advertise at the funeral. The room is packed and tensions run high, as sneaker and bottled water companies offer millions of dollars to hawk their wares at a funeral (the scene satirizes the capitalist boom that hit China within the last 20 years).
Lucy also finds herself swept up in the planning. In one bizarre scene, she joins Louis and Yoyo to review the storyboards for the event. They decide to show a short animated film about Tyler’s upcoming reincarnation into the body they consider most “politically correct”: a round-faced, smiling African boy. This short film, along with all the choreographed dancers, fireworks, and billboards, will be projected on the stage behind Tyler’s coffin.
And yet, even as they work on their joint project, cross-cultural tensions erupt again. When Lucy first meets Louis, he speaks to her in English. She announces that she speaks fluent Chinese, to which Louise responds, in English, that it is only “polite” to speak to his customers in their native language. The dig hits home, underscoring the thorny intersections of identity and business: first, Lucy’s status as an American-born Chinese makes her different from Yoyo and Louis, despite her attempts to fit in. As well, Louis reveals his own abilities and understanding of cultural nuance, beyond the American movie company’s clout: he’s a Chinese businessman with international clients, and maintains his distance and edge by speaking their language.
On these many levels, Big Shot’s Funeral is both entertaining and revealing. But while its goofy story pokes fun at serious issues (cross-cultural exchange, capitalism in the East), its erratic pacing and apparent ambivalence (are they making fun of Tyler, or celebrating him?) dilute the satire. Still, the film’s funniest scenes—Louis and Yoyo wheeling and dealing—point to the most pressing concerns for Xiaogang Feng (and any other film director): how to make money and art.