Four people create a company that allows clients to fulfill their dreams.
The versatile Feng Xiaogang is currently under consideration for the Best Foreign Film Oscar for his war movie Back to 1942 (featuring Adrien Brody). In the past few years, Feng has delivered some riveting dramas such as the astounding Aftershock (2010) and the brutal Assembly (2007), but he established his reputation with satirical comedies that tweaked the nose of a changing China, beginning with his hit The Dream Factory in 1997. Feng returns to this cheeky mode with his latest film Personal Tailor. (Not that he really left it as he also made the satirical romantic comedies If You Are the One and If You Are the One II concurrent with his recent unabashedly serious films.) But regardless of what genre he works in, Feng has become the most successful of Chinese directors, due to his unerring sense of what makes his audience tick.
all the performances are perfectly tuned to the script’s intentions
Personal Tailor is like a loose sequel to The Dream Factory. As in that earlier film, regular Feng leading man Ge You is the ringleader of an odd little company which, with help from his associates played by Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu and Zheng Kai, grant the elaborate wishes of their clients for a fee. The slogan of the company known as Personal Tailor is: 'what you don’t dare imagine, we dare to do". And as everyone from Aladdin onwards has learnt, when granted a wish, what you wish for reveals a lot about you.
In an echo of American Depression era comedy If I Had a Million (1932), Personal Tailor is actually a series of four and a half scenarios (one brief skit about a birthday party takes longer to explain than it does to watch) about what happens to the clients.
An oddball black-and-white opening that features Ge in a Gestapo uniform and a client who wants to experience political martyrdom serves the dual function of satirising Western perceptions of Mainland China and is designed to put movie latecomers off-balance.
Their second client is a chauffeur (Fan Wei) who wishes to prove that he is more honourable than all of the corrupt businessmen and politicians who are positioned above him. Instead, he learns by becoming a government official that temptation and the fall from grace that often follows are much more difficult to avoid than he imagined.
For film buffs, the third client will be the most amusing. The script by novelist Wang Shuo (author of the book that inspired the glorious Zhang Yuan film Little Red Flowers and Feng’s collaborator on If You Were The One II), takes digs at overly-revered film festival favourite Jia Zhang-ke, artist Ai Weiwei and even Feng’s own popular success. The customer in this sequence is a commercially successful Chinese film director (played by Li Chrengru) who has won many international awards (including an Oscar for Most Vulgar Foreign Film) but wants to gain respect by becoming an arty poseur whose subjects are poverty and obscurity. Wickedly funny, this section also contains a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Jackie Chan cameo, which apparently justified the martial arts star’s producer credit.
The last section recycles the much-used Damon Runyon conceit (Pocketful of Miracles etc.) of a poor woman (Song Danddan) being granted untold wealth for her good nature. The difference is that this essentially humble woman becomes consumed by the wealthy fantasy and begins flaunting and indulging her affluence in a reflection of those newly financially empowered Chinese citizens who have rapidly developed a taste for luxury goods and have become the fastest growing tourist group in the world. The reprimand to China’s nouveau riche citizens is gentle, but unmistakeable.
Personal Tailor delightfully parodies greed and self-importance but also encourages further levity with frequent asides on art and fashion trends (including that wacky craze of spectacle frames without glass.) as well as China’s economic modernity. With Ge leading the way (and clearly enjoying himself), all the performances are perfectly tuned to the script’s intentions.
But as pleasurable as the film is, the finale is decidedly pointed. While once again stabbing directly at the foibles exposed by China’s emergence as a world economic power, the coda also has a direct relevance to all of us living on this energy consuming and pollution-generating planet. No gentle admonishment here. In the end, Feng and Shuo put everybody – East and West – on the hook and darkly suggest that, all jokes aside, we are too flawed to redeem ourselves. But the genius of Feng is that he makes you smile as he gives you the bad news.