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

Bits of Laughter

Iron gray sky leaden with heavy clouds, depressing as if the prelude of the darkest tragedy to come. If I hadn¡¯t been living in the Bay Area for so long, I would say it was threatening to snow. Alas, let¡¯s talk of happier thoughts under this darkening sky.

November¡¯s election has long past, but on the streets of San Francisco, I am still seeing cars passing by with bumper stickers cheering for Kerry or condemning Bush. Most of them just made me cringe. A reminder of the unhappy reality. The other morning as I was getting on the highway entrance, the bumper sticker on the little car in front of me made me laugh. It reads:

Frodo Failed!
Bush Got the Ring!

That reminded me of a little British program I heard on the radio. It was some kind of wordsmith talk show, where people demonstrating their cleverness with English phrases. Or making fun of people who were not so clever with words.

The other day I was in the supermarket, picked up a box of orange juice. It says right on the box ¡°Open Here¡±. I thought, ¡°Certainly not! I¡¯m going to take you to my kitchen and open you there!¡±

One day I was walking on the street and there was a huge banner in this shop window, which reads, ¡°Sale Last Week!¡± I stood there dumbfounded, couldn¡¯t figure out why they would be advertising a sale that happened in the past.

Then of course, there is the book commercial that reads ¡°Top ten ways to cook Chinese.¡±

Hotel Rwanda

Nowadays, gory scenes that depicted a battle or a human tragedy in Hollywood have become as trendy as the obnoxious white wires sticking out of ipod user’s ears on a San Francisco bus. Started with Saving Private Ryan, directors competing to win the most realistic and most horrifying visual affect of physical human beings being destroyed.

We were literarily in disbelief when we saw a movie that didn’t show any blood gushing scenes that froze audiences cold in their seats, teeth chattering. Especially in a movie that seemed to have all the permission to use it, Hotel Rwanda.

Judging by New York Times review, there are certainly audiences who demanded to see such scenes. I, am not one of them. Neither, it seemed, are my friends who saw it with me. We were all grateful of their absence.

Sometimes, trusting an audiences imagination is respect.

The absence of cruelty in visual elements didn’t diminish the movie’s powerful emotional message in any way. We were still left frozen cold in our seats, teeth chattering, tears pouring, ashamed of what had happened in Rwanda, ashamed of the rest of the world’s inaction, indifference, and cowardice.

It reminded me of The Pianist, because it presented the same drastic contrast of the most beautiful of human being side by side with the most cruel and senseless of the same species. The blinding contrast blew me away. Left me stunned with incomprehension and sadness. Instead of Chopin’s immensely pretty piano concerto resounding above the ruins of Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw, we saw the beautiful Tutsi girls dancing their traditional dance in the middle of the massacre. Their heads roll in that lovely curves, the radiant smiles on their face as if shone from the sky like sunlight, so lyrical and so full of joy amidst of all the chaos happening around them. The only thing separate that joy and the savage death occurring a few yards outside the hotel wall was one man’s courage and wit. At that moment, I felt the same way as when I was watching the Pianist. I wanted to will that beauty away, diminish it, hoping it is not so stunningly pure and happy. Because in the back of my mind, I wondered that if human beings is not capable of producing such beauty, maybe they wouldn’t be able to produce such cruelty either.

We often used the word “savage” or “animal-like” to describe human cruelty. But I haven’t heard one kind of animal out there would not stop once their enemy admitted defeat and left their sight. What animals out there would go for genocide, over and over again? What animals have such crazed appetite for blood and destruction, except us humans?

I also liked the fact that the script showed how Paul didn’t start out as a saint and savior. At the beginning, all he wanted was to save his own family. No more, no less. But the environment, and all the events led up to the final rescue forced him into his position. Somehow that reminded me of Johe Irving’s Owen Meany, where the talk of “being God’s instrument” played an dominate role. I was also grateful the director left God out of these. Hotel Rwanda remained a movie about humans. Human behavior, human characters, and human psychology. In the middle of the ever more darkened landscape, the characters remained ordinarily human. That alone seemed extraordinary admirable.

I remember when I first saw Schindler’s List some twelve years ago, I said everyone should see that movie once in his/her lifetime. I would say the same for Hotel Rwanda.

Today is Boris Pasternak’s Birthday

Heard a little bio on Boris Pasternak(Doctor Zhivago) on today’s Writer’s Almanac. Really liked the quote they used at the end:

Boris Pasternak said, “What is laid down, ordered, factual is never enough to embrace the whole truth: life always spills over the rim of every cup.”

To read more, go here, and scroll down to Thursday.

News on New Year¡¯s Day

For the past two years, there had always been a NASA disaster awaited us on every Chinese New Year¡¯s Day. So this morning I woke up somewhat anticipating bad news again. But there was nothing bad. Nothing bad came out of NASA, that is.

Instead, the wrack of the New Year¡¯s Day continued. Only this time it didn¡¯t happen in outer space, but right here in Silicon Valley. Carly Fiorina was fired by HP.

My reaction was just ¡°wow¡±! They finally got their way. She has been hated for so long. And HP¡¯s stock shoot up.

In the office, a co-worker passed on the severance pay figure for Carly, a sweet 21 millions. ¡°Don¡¯t feel sorry for her!¡± He laughed. Most of the men in the office seemed to enjoy her fall. Even though a little cynical about her lofty pay for ¡°doing a shitty job.¡±

All the women, especially women managers were shocked and dismayed, ¡°They hate her because she is a woman. If it was a man who did what she has done, they would have admired him. Same goes for our ex-CEO, and Hillary Clinton. They hate a woman¡¯s guts.¡± ¡°Yeah, she did well for HP considering how bad the economy has been.¡±

I couldn¡¯t comment on any of these since I didn¡¯t follow her career closely. But I found this alignment between opinion and gender divide interesting.

The Perfect Weekend

The rain that forecaster has been threatening us with the entire weekend didn¡¯t arrive till late Sunday evening. Rain drops fell gently out of a clear night sky, as we pulled out of mom¡¯s driveway last night. This morning as I walked across the office parking lot, which was wet from the overnight rain, I smelled Spring in the air. What a wonderful way to start a Monday, the last Monday of the year of Monkey!

That made the past weekend the last weekend of the year of the Monkey. It also happened to be the Super Bowl weekend. In anticipating the intense couch-potato activities all the football fans would be engaging, we were determined to exploit this opportunity by having an action-packed weekend.

How wonderful it was that the weather was lovely!

We went hiking in Sam McDonald Park, tasted artichoke soup at Pescadero, caught the last pink glow of sunset at Pescadero beach, checked out Stanford Museum for some Chinese and Western art, admired Rodin sculpture at the museum garden, shopped at IKEA, visited Mom, Nappy and Anita, and had a family dinner.

Here are some photos from the first half of the weekend: Hiking Sam McDonald Park and Visiting Pescadero.


Angels In America

Mi was amazed that I was so into this mini-series by HBO. He fell asleep during the first chapter and gave up on it after the second chapter. I loved it.

It is witty and imaginative. Meryl Streep is my favorite, Al Pacino is his usual yelling self. Maybe it seemed rather naïve like how West Wing is naïve. Because both are idealistic Hollywood types attempting at describing the world of politics, or analyzing why conservatives are conservatives.

In addition to all the big name actors employed by the series, the script is awesome. A few lines I love:

Roy Cohn (Al Pacino): A Republican hot-shot lawyer was informed by his long time personal doctor that he has AIDS.

“Your problem is that you are hung up on words, on labels, that you believe they mean what they seem to mean,” Cohn says. “Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows, who have zero clout? Does this sound like me? I have sex with men. But unlike nearly every other man of whom this is true, I bring the guy I’m screwing to the White House and President Reagan smiles at us and shakes his hand. I, have clout. I’m not a homosexual with AIDs. What I have is liver cancer. I’m a heterosexual that likes to fuck around with men.”

Joe Pitt (A Republican, a Morman, a closeted gay, and a lawyer) says to his first gay lover:
You democrats are so naïve, you believe things can be perfected. If you could accept reality as it is, if you could accept the in-perfectibility of human being, then you will see why I am a Republican. We are the realists.

So the story goes that God was tempted to leave Heaven after he had witnessed men’s progress. He wanted more adventure of his own! Eventually God walked out on Heaven on 1909, during the time that San Francisco had the biggest earthquake (Heaven quake. Apparently Heaven is in San Francisco, ha). So the angels God left behind tried to manage on their own throughout the entire 20th century and watching human ran the world to the ground. So they send an angel (Emma Thompson) to see the Prophet, a gay man lives in New York City and recently diagnosed with AIDs. The Angel asked the Prophet to stop human progress, to stop time and maybe to turn back time so God might return.

At the end the young gay man, who was given the title of Prophet went to heaven (a.k.a San Francisco), to stand in front the chief angels (all look like some kind homeless), he said (something to this affect, I don’t have the exact transcript)

“I don’t want to be a Prophet, and I don’t want to stop time. Progress, migration, and change are modernity. Human has to desire, even when we desire to be still, it is still a desire. As for God, if he dares to show his face again here after all that he had left behind, after all the destruction and death had befallen us, I say, we sue the bastard. How dare he walk out on us? He has to pay!”

More Quotes and Trivia from

“A Poison Tree” – William Blake

A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears,
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright,
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine, ¡ª
And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

-William Blake
via The Writer’s Almanac