Swiftly getting back behind the camera following an unusually muted reception for his historical drama Back to 1942 (2012), perennial crowd-pleaser Feng Xiaogang returns to the popular satire that established him as a box office force with Personal Tailor, a broad comedy that serves as a semi-sequel to his breakthrough success The Dream Factory (1997). In the earlier film, Ge You headed a group of Beijing-based enterprisers who helped people realize their fantasies for a day, while Personal Tailor finds this idea developed into a full-blown business empire complete with television advertising and luxurious head office in touristic Hainan. The Dream Factory was the first ‘Feng comedy’, an accessible commentary on China’s shifting value system that was followed by Be There or Be Square (1998), Sorry Baby (1999), and Big Shot’s Funeral (2001), each of which found the pace of Feng’s humorous critique quickening in order to take not-so-subtle jabs at an accelerated society. The director has since tried his hand at heavy-going dramas with Assembly (2007) and Aftershock (2010), while even tempering lighter fare such as his If You Are the One romances (2008/2010) with a melancholy that was absent from his early, funny features, which makes Personal Tailor the first ‘Feng comedy’ in a over a decade. However, what should be a welcome return to home territory at a time when China’s economic growth has arguably exceeded its common sense turns out to be little more than a series of episodic skits that lacks the bite that characterizes Feng’s most acute farces.
The opening segment sets-up the service offered by Yang (Ge) and his capable associates (Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu and Zheng Kai) with a black-and-white Nazi scenario arranged for a client who wishes to experience martyrdom before cutting to their latest television commercial which boasts the slogan, “What you don’t dare to imagine, we dare to do.” This advertisement is as crass as any of the copious spots that Ge has featured in, not to mention Feng’s current promotional gig as a baiju spokesperson, but the manner in which it is used as a transition between episodes is telling in that we rarely get a glimpse of the real people behind the slick operation. The vignettes that follow involve a chauffeur who wants to become a state authority figure in order to test his self-proclaimed incorruptibility; a movie director who has made a fortune from low-brow spectacles and wishes to lead the kind of existence that will inspire him to make an unintelligible art-house piece; a teenage girl who wishes she had a rich father so that she could receive a car for her 18th birthday; and an elderly cleaning lady who becomes a billionaire for a day due to a generous benefactor. Catering to these clients means that the four leads get to dress-up in costumes and assume various identities, while Feng is able to consider some current debates – integrity vs. money, entertainment vs. art, fantasy vs. reality – with his conclusions ranging from the glib to the didactic. At its peak, ‘Feng comedy’ provided a release for the mainstream audience by addressing issues that would be off-limits if not dealt with in such a farcical manner, but in the social media era – when corrupt politicians are exposed through weibo and internet users are relatively free to poke fun at President Xi Jinping for ‘sharing the fate’ in polluted Beijing – even the most topical jokes in Personal Tailor seem dated.
Beyond taking potshots at everything from gifting culture to Ai Weiwei to the property boom, Personal Tailor is Feng at his most self-referential with the director taking as many swipes at China’s commercial film industry as he does at society at large. It’s his glossiest production to date, and therefore a fantasy about fantasies, although one which is oddly joyless considering its comedic intentions. While the protagonists of The Dream Team sought to raise the morale of despondent individuals through role playing, Yang and wish-fulfillment specialists largely deal with the whims of the rich or the comfortable middle-classes who use the service as another distraction. Feng’s regular alter-ego Ge dispenses truisms with his usual mischievous twinkle, but the lack of character development makes Yang little more than a sly puppet master who is just in it for the money by this point. After what seems to be the final act, with a working class woman suddenly adopting the objectionable manner associated with Chinese tourists when she has a brief taste of nouveau riche affluence, an eco-conscious parting message is suddenly tacked-on: Yang asks his team about their plans for the Lunar New Year – acknowledging not only the release date of Personal Tailor but also Feng’s status as the leading purveyor of the ‘New Year Greeting Film’ – and each makes a visit to a different part of the country to apologize to nature for the damage that China’s rush to superpower status has wrought upon its environment. Feng clearly feels entitled to include this coda on the assumption that his upscale audience has just had a few hours of fun and should now listen to the serious part before driving home in their carbon-spewing vehicles, but has failed to realize that Personal Tailor is, for the most part, a self-indulgent chore that will test the patience of even his most devoted fans.