With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

PERSONAL TAILOR opens tomorrow

Huayi Brothers and
China Lion present
 Personal Tailor / Si Ren Ding Zhi
Directed by Feng Xiaogang
Screenplay by Wang Shuo
China, 2013, 117 minutes

Personal Tailor, the new satirical comedy from Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, opens tomorrow in several major metro areas in the U.S. and Canada. This is in keeping with China Lion's policy of releasing films theatrically here to closely coincide with their release in China, where Personal Tailor is to formally open today, December 19th. Check IMDb, Fandango or local listings for theaters and showtimes in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Washington D.C, Honolulu, Vancouver and Toronto.

The film's title is the name of a dream fulfillment service whose corporate motto is, "What you don't dare imagine, we dare to do." For a short period of time, typically a day or two, the four members of the company will help an individual realize something that they otherwise would never experience. Yang Zhong (Ge You, The Banquet, a.k.a. Legend of the Black Scorpion, 2006) is the director of dreams; Miss Bai (Bai Baihe) serves as the personal fantastician to the clients; Miss Lu (Li Xiallu, Blood Brothers, 2007) is the caterer of whims; and Ma Quing (Zheng Kai, My Lucky Star, 2013) is the spiritual anesthetist.

Miss Lu and Ge You as visiting dignitaries to the chauffeur who would be a powerful person

After an introductory sequence that plays like a black-and-white World War II movie set in Europe, the film switches to color. There are three main stories in this omnibus film. The first, "Honest Instincts," stars Fan Wei (Back to 1942, 2012) as a chauffeur. A succession of his past corporate bosses have been convicted of corruption and his fantasy is to be in a position of power to prove that he's incorruptible and would therefore make an outstanding cadre.

Miss Lu, Ge You, Miss Bai and Ma Quing watch a performance by their vulgar film director client

In "Bloody Vulgar" Li Chengru portrays a film director who has made nothing but cheap, vulgar entertainment. His desire is to go art house. The staff of Personal Tailor come to realize that they are all vulgar, so they should follow their instincts, then do the exact opposite. Fans of Seinfeld will recognize this ploy from the episode in which the George Costanza character does exactly that and turns his life around, albeit temporarily. This segment features a brief cameo by Jackie Chan, and one minor character brings to mind Vulgaria director Pang Ho-cheung, at least judging by their distinctive hairstyles.

Mrs. Song and Ge You

The final fantasy is "Mo' Money," which stars Dandan Song (House of Flying Daggers, 2004)) as Mrs. Song, an old woman who once saved spiritual anesthetist Ma Quing when he fell  into a river during an earthquake. She dreams of being immensely rich, and the lengths to which she, assisted by the staff of Personal Tailor, will go in order to "spend" her wealth are among the funniest moments in the film.

Which brings me to the dilemma of rating and evaluating Personal Tailor. As far as I'm concerned,  comedies are the most difficult category of films both to make and to review. For the filmmaker it's a matter of generating at least an adequate number of laughs from the intended audience, whether it's a broad and general one or a specifically targeted audience. As a reviewer, I feel I have to consider not only what made me laugh and if these things are likely to make others laugh, but also will things that I didn't find funny possibly or likely amuse others.

The situation is compounded with a foreign film, where viewers not understanding the language have to deal with subtitles. (This of course doesn't apply, or barely applies to physical comedy, which transcends language. Witness, for example, the widespread appeal of such silent film stars as Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.) And a satirical comedy has the additional factor of how familiar does one need to be with what is being satirized in order to appreciate the humor.

All in all, I have to say that Personal Tailor succeeds quite well as comic satire from a foreign country. I'm sure that the more familiar one is with present day mainland China, the more one is likely to be amused by the film. But the subjects of the three main sections -- sanctimonious self-righteousness, artistic pretensions, and the flaunting of obscene wealth -- are all topics that know no borders. Feng does a fine job of puncturing their respective bubbles,

I enjoyed the movie a lot and I'll go on record as believing that anyone inclined to see it will find Personal Tailor quite entertaining and amusing. Go see it, give it a chance, and find out for yourself.