Sony // 2001 // 100 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Nelson (Retired) // June 4th, 2003
If the whole world is a stage, why not sell advertising space? Imagine life with choreographed product placement. At your funeral, high-priced bidding wars over which tailor made suit will accompany you to your burial site (the suit you wear in the coffin is another story, for the next bidder of course.) So let me make this perfectly clear from the get go: Advertising (in my opinion, not necessarily that of the rest of the DVD Verdict staff, nor its subsidiaries or parent companies) is one of the worst aspects of Capitalism. When decisions are made solely based off the almighty dollar, good intentions and best wishes can quickly be sent the way of the dodo. Not to mention good taste. This in mind, it can also be extremely funny and absurd. So if you can sponsor a Russian Proton rocket liftoff and adorn it with your logo (thank you, Pizza Hut), plaster stock cars with enough bumper stickers and car covers that they are the only thing holding the car together, why not make some money off your own death as well?
Don Tyler (Donald Sutherland, The Italian Job, Virus, Outbreak) is the world's most prominent film director, nay, auteur, alive, and as such he feels no shame in having hundreds of costumed extras sit on their period-pieced butts, on location in China as he figures out the next shot for his remake of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. But all is not well in the Forbidden City, for Tyler has lost all confidence in his abilities as a creative force and wants to scrap the whole mess. The Studio Boss of the film (Paul Mazursky, The Majestic, Crazy in Alabama) doesn't care about Tyler's vision, he just wants the movie made, seeing as it's already behind schedule and over budget. In an effort to cut his losses, he fires Tyler and hires some MTV VJ to finish the movie and slap Tyler's name on the finished piece, with or without Tyler's consent.
Behind the scenes, Tyler's personal assistant, Lucy (Rosamund Kwan, Once Upon a Time in China, Swordsman II, Operation Condor 2: The Armour of Gods), an American born Chinese woman, hires Yoyo (Ge You, Huzhe, Butterfly Smile), a local out of work cameraman, to film the behind-the-scenes making of documentary of Tyler's project. Tyler and Yoyo form an unlikely friendship, given their language barriers (Yoyo speaks very little English, Tyler even less Chinese), and together they explore Chinese customs, especially those about death and funerals. Tyler is so enthralled with the custom of the "comedy funeral" that he wants one for himself when he finally "joins the immortals." So when the stress finally overwhelms Tyler and he has his final stroke (not of genius, unfortunately for his sake), Yoyo begins the plans to fulfill his new friend's last request.
Elaborate plans are drawn up. Videos of Princess Di's funeral procession are mined for ideas. Yoyo hires a concert promoter friend to generate buzz and put the whole shebang together. But who is going to pay for all of this? Tyler's broke, Lucy informs them, go somewhere else for the money. So they do the only logical approach available in a Capitalist society: get sponsors and have them foot the bill. Advertising space is sold all over the funeral: on the hearse, on the coffin, behind the stage, even on the corpse itself. It doesn't matter that Tyler isn't actually dead yet, only in a coma, but that's no reason to stop the plans now. Besides, it's only a matter of time, right? So Yoyo plows ahead with the event as production spirals ever skyward while trying to convince Lucy that he is not betraying Tyler's integrity selling him off piece by piece.
There's just something about wanting to profit from your own funeral that just feels so...American. You're already dead, and last time I checked my Karmic balance at the Nth Eternal Bank of Nirvana, they still weren't counting all those pennies I swiped, err, donated to the local orphanage, so what good did they do me? Personal greed aside, Big Shot's Funeral does address corporate greed in today's modern China. Everyone wants to be associated with success, regardless if the price is the death of the one in question. Your ultimate worth is determined by how much you'll fetch on the auction block. So just like much of Hollywood's teachings: Hype is everything.
And this hype is surprisingly fun to watch. High-stakes advertising may not be at the top of every Hollywood pitchman's list of good ideas, and probably for good reason. A movie about flipping through the pages of the New York Times probably won't make $50 million on its opening weekend. That's where Big Shot's Funeral comes in. It was never intended to be a huge summer blockbuster. This was an arthouse flick from the moment of inception. Not everyone will want to see this movie. Nothing blows up. There are no car chase scenes. Space aliens do not land in the middle of the Forbidden City and start shooting the tourists. Angelina Jolie does not make wild passionate monkey-sex with Buddha in the climatic third act. All those are great ideas that will probably be mined to extinction (call my agent, we need to talk to Ms. Jolie, and I believe I can fill in for the role of Buddha), but they are not in this movie. Nonetheless, Big Shot's Funeral is still fun to watch, even though it lacks all of the forementioned activities.
On the acting front, Donald Sutherland does a fantastic job as the jaded director Don Tyler. His presence and delivery are spot on, never feeling saccharine or forced. It is a great improvement over some of his former duds *coughcoughViruscoughcough*. Ge You also does a stand up job with the character, bouncing back and forth between admiration for the man he is paying tribute to and the compelling realization that things could get ugly very quickly if the money isn't made. The only character that doesn't fit as snugly as the rest is Lucy, Rosamund Kwan. Half the time she feels part of the scene, the other, just a spectator reading lines that fit the scene but that real people would never actually say. This in itself isn't that distracting, for thankfully the movie moves along at a modest pace without much time to really stop and analyze any out of place moments.
Since most of the film is in Mandarin, the English translation is adequate enough to convey the message, but a lot of the sublety is lost. Some of the cultural concepts are whizzed through without enough explanation for non-Chinese viewers to fully comprehend, but the basic messages get through fine.
The video is very clean with very few noticeably spots of grain poking through. Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the disc suffers nothing from how it is presented.
The sound is presented in adequate levels in Dolby Digital 5.1. The dialogue is mostly in Mandarin with English subtitles, and in English for about 1/4th of the film. The audio gets the job done, with primarily center channel emission. It is also available entirely in French.
Extras included are pretty slim, only a few theatrical trailers. But the disc does have some pretty animated menus, which are worth mentioning. After a few seconds, there is a transition wipe into the same menu but with an entirely different layout, font use, color scheme, the works. It's not worth buying the disc for, but it is fun to see happen the first dozen times before it gets old, and it does underscore one particular scene in the movie, during the "auction." It is also the only disc I can currently recall that could justifiably list "animated menus" as a special feature on the package.
"How is it going to end? That is something only God and Hitchcock know." The third act is where the carefully woven threads quickly fall apart. Just as Yoyo's plans escalate higher and higher into absurdity, so too does the movie's hope of a satisfyingly coherent ending. Ultimately the ending feels like a cop-out, which is a shame given how much fun the second act is to watch. If there was any one scene to watch in this movie to get the feel of the whole, it would have to be the "dressing the body" scene. Ah, Capitalism at its finest.
This dark comedy puts to rest the notion that anything is still sacred, including death. Probably not a must-have unless you are a concert promoter or planning the funeral of a world-renown director, it is nonetheless worth the price of sponsorship from your local DVD rental retailer. If you want hard-core action though, try somewhere else.
Not guilty. Donald Sutherland is given the court's blessing for services rendered and will be awarded a tasteful ceremony later this evening. Tickets are $500 a chair and serious inquiries may be addressed to the bailiff. Case adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2003 Jonathan Nelson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin, with English portions)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 100 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Theatrical Trailers
* Animated Menus