Thursday, December 19, 2013

Personal Tailor: A Little Wish Fulfillment

Yang Zhong is sort of like Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island, except he is always on the make.  For a price, his company realizes their clients’ fantasies.  He is nobody’s altruist, but lessons will still be learned in Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Yang is the “Director of Dreams,” his right hand man Ma Qing is the “Spiritual Anesthetist,” Miss Bai is the “Fantastician,” and Xiaolu Lu is the “Caterer of Whims.”  Together, they are “Personal Tailor” and they are used to some strange requests, like the creepy woman with a WWII martyr fetish in the James Bond-like prologue.  Many of their fantasy scenarios are a peculiar product of contemporary China, such as the chauffeur, whose recent string of bosses were all government officials convicted of corruption. Believing he would wield power more responsibly, the driver hires Personal Tailor to put his ethics to the test.

Much of the broad humor in Tailor is not particularly suited to the American market.  However, art house patrons familiar with the Digital Generation and related Chinese indie filmmakers will be amused by their next client.  Having achieved every possible measure of success for his “vulgar” films, a popular director hires Yang’s team to experience the world of art cinema, which Personal Tailor equates with hand-to-mouth Miserablism.

While the first two primary assignments are played largely for laughs, the third is a sweet tale with considerable heart.  To thank her for saving Ma from drowning, Yang’s team treats Mrs. Dan, a poor working woman, to a pro bono day as a Nouveau Riche industrialist. Song Dandan adds a touch of class and a strong screen presence in her “guest-starring” role and Feng’s bittersweet vibe is quite potent, making it Tailor’s most appealing full story arc thus far.

Almost shockingly, Tailor becomes quite pointed and strangely touching in its concluding sequences.  Lamenting the appalling state of China’s environment, Yang disperses the team on a spiritual apology mission.  It sounds corny, but it is effective.  In fact, Tailor reveals it was never the farce it pretended to be, but is in fact a work of political protest.  Yang and his colleagues bemoan the rampant corruption, widening class inequality, and environmental devastation just as strongly as Jia Zhangke’s followers, but in a manner far more accessible to Chinese popular audiences.

Chen Kaige regular Ge You is suitably manic as Yang, but dials it down nicely when the film gets serious.  Bai Baihe brings appropriate sass and seductiveness as Miss Bai, while Li Xiaolu plays the more demur Xiaolu Lu with greater sensitivity than one might expect.  Zheng Kai has the odd moment too, especially with the down-to-earth Song.

While some viewers might lose patience with Tailor’s goofiness, it is fascinating to see its serious side slowly emerge.  Frankly, one would not expect such a strong critique from Feng, who has established a reputation for flag-wavers, like Assembly and Back to 1942, which China has selected as their official submission for the best foreign language Academy Award.  Although clearly intended for popular audiences, China watchers should not dismiss it out of snobbishness. Recommended for those who prefer screwball comedy with their social commentary, Personal Tailor opens tomorrow (12/20) at the AMC Empire in New York and the AMC Cupertino in the Bay Area, courtesy of China Lion Entertainment.