Personal Tailor (Shi Ren Ding Zhi): Film Review

Huayi Brothers Media
"Personal Tailor"
The once-almighty social satirist falls flat on return to his favorite genre, with dated jibes, undercooked characters and a lack of empathy for the masses. 

Chinese director Feng Xiaogang delivers a story revolving around a team whose business is making their clients' fantasies come true.

"Fulfilling others by debasing ourselves:" so goes the motto of Personal Tailor's protagonists, a quartet whose business is realizing their clients' wildest fantasies.

Inadvertently, however, the slogan is oddly prophetic for the filmmaker behind the camera. By delivering a gaudy, incoherent and largely unfunny comedy, director Feng Xiaogang -- once the unchallenged master of Chinese festive-season gag-laden blockbusters -- has given his rivals much room to shine.

The only people left laughing will probably be Jackie Chan (who actually is one the film's co-producers and has a cameo here) and Teng Huatao, whose releases next week – the action-thriller Police Story 2013 for the former on Dec. 23; the romantic comedy Up in the Wind for the latter on Dec. 29 – can now unspool without the fear of being overwhelmed by a cultural juggernaut resembling anything like Feng's output in the 2000s.

Personal Tailor tallied an impressive first-day take of $13.2 million in China on Dec. 19, but critical backlash (which has already been circulating in the country's vibrant social media) will hamper the producers' aspirations for the film joining the ranks of China's big local hits of 2013.  

A revisit of the narrative framework of Feng's own 1997 film The Dream Factory -- a sharp satire which propelled the erstwhile first-time director to the forefront of mainland China's then budding film industry -- Personal Tailor belies its bankable A-list cast and lavish production values with ersatz humor and ham-fisted social critique, a despairing mix that underlines the film's disconnect from the public pulse. Ironically, one of the film's three stories revolves around a commercial filmmaker's attempt to attain arthouse credibility by striving break from communal tastes: Personal Tailor is, indeed, a sad example of an once eagle-eyed director losing touch with his audience.

It's all the more ironic, therefore, that Personal Tailor is Feng's reaction to the criticism directed at his New Year entry last year, Back to 1942. Based on a catastrophic famine that broke out in central China during the second world war, the dark historical epic was roundly (and wrongly, in my view) condemned for being out-of-sync with the Chinese audience's cravings for jolly entertainment during the festive period.

The big-budget blockbuster incurred losses for its backers, Feng's longtime collaborators Huayi Brothers; Feng was derided for turning artistic -- yes, artists do take offense from number-crunchers and mainstream filmgoers over such allegations in China. That episode likely contributed to a segment in Personal Tailor where a self-proclaimed "schlock-maker" (Li Chengyu) -- who peppers his talk with garbled pseudo-intellectual comments such as "historical fetishism" and "film as the eighth art" -- pays for an "authentic" artistic existence by trading in his gaudy lifestyle for a stay in an empty warehouse with only the noise of a metal-grinder for company.

This clichéd and very dated jibe about artistic pretense is hardly the substantial indictment of social mores that Feng once thrived on. Instead, it's an embittered director venting his anger against anyone (and everyone) who couldn't understand him. This is where Personal Tailor, written by Feng's long-time screenwriting partner Wang Shuo, loses its charm: whereas Feng used to laugh with the common people, this time around he's laughing at them in rowdy rancor.

While The Dream Factory sides with the masses by having four working-class heroes trying their silly best to make everybody happy, Personal Tailor lacks any sense of empathy for the disfranchised. Here, the four largely sneering fantasy-facilitators (with Dream Factory lead Ge You joined by young comediennes du jour Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu and Zheng Kai) mostly serve as judge and jury for their clueless and unreasonably demanding clients.

This exact situation ends the film's final segment, as the quartet groans and growls as their customer, a government-employed chauffeur (Fan Wei) paying for an experience of becoming a ranked official, sits in front of them and concedes of his misguided notion of wanting to be tested for his moral integrity (which takes the shape of the team playing help-seeking relatives, bribe-brandishing entrepreneurs and seductive underlings). People will do anything to crack cadres, says Ge's character, the company leader Yang; just go back to the comfort of driving other people around, chimes in Zheng's even more cynical upstart Ma Qing. Such is this story's moral – that the masses could and do everything to corrupt the elite; and that the public needs to be enlightened – as the driver was – about the complex dilemmas faced by those in the upper echelons of power.

The strangely simplistic nature of this message is followed up by the second story about the deluded director -- a somewhat pale take on a similar thread in The Dream Factory, in which a film star pays to become an ordinary person and then backtracks because of her inability to ditch the glitz and glamor of celebrity life. Following up on this mockery of the delusions of poverty-stricken grandeur, the third and final story is seemingly designed to bring some cheer to the have-nots; public park cleaner Dan (Song Dandan), who once saved Ma's life, is gifted a birthday present by being able to play a multi-billionaire for a day – a game that involves her revealing her country-bumpkin traits (when she bumps into an unopened door she is told rich people should never lift a finger to do anything) and suppressed, ugly nouveau riche personality traits (when she really casts her gentle, modest self aside and becomes an all-demanding monster).

After all this charade – which also includes the team going into restaurants and shops after Dan's visits and apologizing profusely for their "loony aunt" and her proclamations of treating everyone to free meals and buying up all the goods – the decision to end Dan's day by having her remove her make-up and then slowly amble towards her home down a dark back alley can't really inject pathos into the bathos.

It's too late and too little for a film mostly resembling a show of stringed-together skits -- it's perhaps not coincidental that Feng has been recruited to direct the annual Chinese New Year television gala, a variety show comprising an amalgamation of performances from pop and film stars -- and one that really never offers a personality study of any kind. Not only are the clients caricatures; the four protagonists are simply sneering ciphers -- especially Bai and Li, whose characters (named, unimaginably, as Bai and Li) are simply an underdeveloped extension of their usual on-screen personas (with the former playing her usual rom-com motormouth role, and the latter's physical features being unhealthily played up).

The awkward (if not excessive formulaic) sentimental final story as embodied in Dan's fantastic day is followed up by a coda in which the four cynics decide to advocate a "nationwide movement of apology" to ease social tension. And suddenly, the tone changed drastically and the four cynics are seen traveling to different corners of China to say sorry to mother nature: Bai to the Sun for blocking her with all that smog, Li to the woods for excessive lumberjacking, Ma to the ruined grasslands for over-mining of coal, and to a river for having polluted it with all sorts of sewage.

But Feng always seeks the last laugh, with Yang delivering what could have been a punchline – via him talking in a TV vox pop (in the remote rural hinterlands?) about how he actually doesn't mean what he was saying about doing something about the bigger social good. Nobody's willing to let go a slight piece of their lot, not to mention to debase themselves, for anyone else, is the idea of what Personal Tailor leaves the viewer with. Whether this actually qualifies as a source of mirth, meanwhile, is anyone's worrying guess.

Laden with placements for a wide variety of products -- from cars to liquor to residential complexes -- Personal Tailor offers a sartorial sight (courtesy of Hong Kong costume designer Dora Ng) and visual spectacle (the handiwork of Shi Haiying) to behold, but the style needs some substance. Feng needs to rediscover a fresh way to inject his well-tailored comedy with some soul.


Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen, Dec. 19, 2013

Production Companies: Huayi Brothers Media and Huayi Brothers International, with Chongqing Film Group, Emperor Motion Pictures, Anhui TV, SMG Pictures, The One Investment Fund Management

Director: Feng Xiaogang

Cast: Ge You, Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu, Zheng Kai

Producer: Huang Chang, Albert Lee, Zhao Hongmei, Yang Wenhong

Executive Producers: Wang Zhongjun, with Liu Guangchun, Albert Yeung, Jackie Chan, Chen Suzhou, Qiu Xin, Wang Yiyang

Executive Producers: Huang Chang, Albert Lee, Zhao Hongmei, Yang Wenhong,

Screenwriter: Wang Shuo

Director of Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoshi

Production Designer: Shi Haiying

Costume Designer: Dora Ng

Editing Director: Xiao Yang

Music: Luan Shu

International Sales: Huayi Brothers Distribution

In Mandarin

120 minutes