Big Shot's Funeral Movie Review
It seems everyone is getting into the act when it comes to Hollywood behind-the-scenes movies these days -- even the Chinese.
After 10 films in the genre just last year (from "Adaptation" to "S1m0ne"), we're barely three weeks into 2003 and here comes "Big Shot's Funeral," a comedy from Beijing about an out-of-work cameraman (Ge You) hired to shoot making-of footage for a big American studio's way-over-budget historical epic.
Despite a nearly insurmountable language barrier, Ge is befriended by the increasingly erratic director of this imitation "Last Emperor" -- a flaky filmmaking legend, played with befitting bewilderment by Donald Sutherland. The big shot thinks Ge understands him inherently, and the crazier he gets, the more he wants Ge around.
So as it happens, the cameraman is in the director's trailer, filming an awkward private confessional, when a heart attack sends the old man into a coma after a seemingly last request: He wants Ge to arrange a "comedy funeral," a celebration of life he thinks is Chinese tradition.
What follows is a farce of showbiz and crass commercialism. Ge seeks help from a wannabe concert promoter pal (Ying Da), who runs with the idea, planning an extravagant, corporate-sponsored circus of a ceremony to be broadcast live from the palace courtyard in the once-royal Forbidden City. Chinese rock stars will sing (like Elton John at Princess Diana's funeral, Ying imagines). Celebrities will attend. A band will play a funeral dirge at double tempo to give it a "happier" feel. Corporate sponsors' logos will adorn everything -- even the corpse.
Contracts are drawn up. Sponsors' money is spent. It's just a matter of time. Then Sutherland wakes up from his coma, throwing a major wrench into the works.
Director and co-writer Feng Xiaogang displays a mordant, abstrusely whimsical sense of humor as the movie's events become more and more an off-kilter commentary on skewed entertainment industry values. But "Big Shot's Funeral" is handicapped by the plot's lack of momentum and by what must be Feng's lack of experience with the English language.
Ge, who speaks no English in the film, is subtly superb as the unassuming cameraman who sees his obligation to Sutherland swallowed up in an ocean of hype he helped create. Sutherland shines, tapping into the tarnished eccentricity of his character who is at a loss for direction, literally and figuratively. But Sutherland is the only actor in the cast with a decisive grip on his English line delivery. Everyone else -- Chinese and American -- labors visibly and unnaturally over their dialogue. Some seem to have given up all together since it's frequently obvious when an actor has been dubbed.
As the film he's making falls apart while he waits around for inspiration to point the way, Sutherland's character feels esoteric and three dimensional, while those around him -- exempting Ge You -- often seem simple and inarticulate.
Problematic but passably enjoyable, the appeal of "Big Shot's Funeral" may be more a matter of taste than quality. For a particular fan of film industry satire, this picture may be worth the price of a matinee. But with its flatness and flaws, it's forgettable fun at best.