Consumer Economy And China – Regarding the Chinese Movie “Big Shot’s Funeral”

A few years ago, a Chinese slang term was carved for Chinese expatriates living overseas”Overseas lower class peasants”. “Lower class peasants” was used in the Culture Revolution era to identify the poorest but also the most revolutionary class of the Chinese society. The ones with that class identifier, which was explicitly printed on everyone’s ID card, usually had the highest respect during the more communist days. But they were also the ones who were stripped of any urban taste or sophistication. It is kind of like how a New Yorker will call anyone who is not a New Yorker.

Anyways, at the beginning when this term surfaced in the Chinese BBS, it somewhat was used with a coy, and self-deprecating air, and it was used to hide the obvious economy superiority most Chinese living in the west feel comparing to their counter part in China. But with the rapid Chinese economic boom in recent years, this term has become more and more appropriate. Chinese living overseas are further removed from the most trendy phenomenon in today’s China, let it be cultural, eateries, or slang; meanwhile, they are losing the economical edge they used to have over their counter parts living in Chinese urban centers.

Being one member of these “Overseas Lower Class Peasants”, I didn’t get to watch a Chinese hit-movie came out in 2002 until last night. The English name of it is “Big Shot’s Funeral”. The Chinese title is just simply “Big Shot”. The more straight translation would have been “The strong wrist” (which is another Beijing slang that represents people who have influence, i.e. big shot).

The director of the movie is Feng XiaoGang, who has been making the equivalent of “Christmas/Holiday Season” movies in China. He makes the comedy of the year in Mainland China, and it was always slated to come out right before Spring Festival holiday season.

The premise of the story started with a Chinese concept of “Comedy Funeral”. In China, if elders who died are over 70 years old, their funerals are considered happy affairs, should be celebrated instead of be mourned. In come a famous American director who was in the low point of his career, considering everything he had made to that point in time were junk. When his Chinese assistant explained the concept of “Comedy Funeral” to him, he embraced it. Then coincidently he fell ill suddenly and was in a coma, before he lost his consciousness he ordered his Chinese assistant to plan a “Comedy Funeral” for him should he die.

The show begins.

The Chinese assistant was played by the top Chinese comedian Ge You. He dutifully contacted his friend (played by Ying Da) who had lots of business connections. Hearing Ge You’s new “assignment”, the friend’s eyes light up, “I will give you commission.” Was his promise.

Ying Da started planning the funeral with gusto. He chose the Forbidden City as the funeral location. First thing he thought of was to sell global satellite coverage of the entire funeral proceeding. “It is okay if an audience refuses to watch it, but I don’t want to hear anyone complains that his TV can’t get the signal.”

Half way through their planning, Ge You found out that the famous Hollywood star director was flat broke. In order to cover the expense of such a lavish funeral, Ying Da and Ge You started selling advertisement to raise some money. But then the advertisement bidding took on a life of its own and this funeral became an absolute wealth generation machine. Ying Da even started to plan an IPO of the funeral itself!

There were many aspects of the entire hysterical story that are worth mentioning. But I don’t want to ruin anyone’s viewing pleasure by spill too much beans.

I myself enjoyed the movie tremendously. I loved the typical Beijing style humor, the subtlety, the irony, and above all the creative cleverness that was such a signature style of Beijing culture. Director Feng worked with Columbia to make the movie, tried to hire Marlon Brando to be the star, aimed to open up HongKong, Taiwan, and western market. But he failed. Despite being a mainland China hit movie, it flopped in HongKong, Taiwan and the West.

While I was researching the movie on line I came upon a speech given by Director Feng XiaoGang in 2003. One year after the movie’s debut. I found his opinion fascinating: “The way I made ‘Big Shot’ was stupid.”
Feng XiaoGang’s a Big Mouth. “Big Shot Was A Stupid Failure.” He Said. (in Chinese)

I did a rough translation of his reasoning.

-I don’t need the US market, nor the HK market. Focusing on Mainland market is all I need.

-I had to make lots of compromises in making of “Big Shot”. I wanted to help HongKong audience and the US audience to understand what I tried to communicate. It turned out to be a big mistake. My compromise didn’t increase the acceptance of the movie in those two markets. Instead, I hurt its receiving potential in Mainland. Please forgive my frankness, but to make Big Shot the way I did was a stupid decision on my part.

-He went on to count the numbers “‘Big Shot’s production cost was 33 million Yuan, the salary alone for the two American actors were 10 million. Then we spent 50 million on advertising campaign outside of Mainland China, which was more than the box office earnings. But in Mainland, its box office grossed 43 million! So I think that if I hadn’t worked with the US company, if i had set my creativity free from all those constrains, the Mainland box office gross could have reached 50 million. If we are to consider the rapid improvement in theatre infrastructure in Mainland in the past couple of years plus the increase in box office ticket price, in today’s China, ‘Big Shot’ could bring in 80 million easy.

“Nowadays, many mainland directors always focus their energy on breaking into foreign markets. I think that is a common misconception. It would have been much more productive to focus on developing Mainland market!”

I think Feng is on the right track. There was an article on Japanese high fashion in the New Yorker a few years ago. The article said that all the top fashion designers in today’s Japan were completely non-recognizable names outside of Japanese market. They didn’t need to nor did they want to expand their market outside of Japan. Reason number one was the Japanese consumer market is lucrative enough for all the Japanese designers for now. Reason number two was the cost of breaking into western market would be too high due to culture differences and the return couldn’t match the Japan market anyways. For example, most of the designer clothing were made to be one of a kind rarities. Even second handed articles could fetch thousands of dollars. It was a completely different paradigm from Western fashion’s business model, which focuses on mass consumer market appeal. There aren’t enough consumers who could stomach the ten thousand per item price tag.

China is the latecomer in the consumer economy. But the West might have just derived a “game” that meant to be won by the Chinese. Maybe China didn’t invent the concept of “advertisement”, but they sure know how to utilize it to its full potential, way beyond the advertisement founder’s wildest dream. After all, China owns the most seductive winning factor in the “consuming” game: 1.3 billion+ consumers.

In one scene of the movie, the maker of a secondary brand of bottled water wanted a prominent spot on the funeral. Money is not the issue. The irony is that the brand name “Laugh Ha Ha” was meant to steal from the dominate bottled water brand “Wa Ha Ha”. So Ge You asked the maker, “If you are the one that tried to pretend to be the real brand using cheap product, why are you spending all these money for advertisement?” The maker sneered, “The trick of the business is once you spent the big money, the fake will become the real thing.”

TIMEasia Interview with Feng in 2000
More articles on ‘Big Shot’ in Chinese