|Feng Xiaogang earns hipster cred if not ruling class approval with Personal Tailor, a virtually plotless comedy that’s drier than the desert and easily twice as funny. Though the desert isn’t that funny, so maybe that’s an analogy fail. Controversial author and longtime Feng Xiaogang collaborator Wang Shuo penned this story about a dream-fulfilling company called Personal Tailor, which consists of team members Yang Zheng (Ge You), Miss Bai (Bai Baihe), Miss Lu (Li Xiaolu) and Ma Qing (Zheng Kai). With a seemingly inexhaustible budget and no small amount of disbelief, the group works together to fulfill the company creed: “To fulfill others by debasing ourselves”. That motto may have at least three layers of meaning.
Situated in an insanely luxurious office cum fantasy grotto, the Personal Tailor crew interviews clients for prospective jobs. If the job is accepted the team arranges for and carries out their clients’ fantasies, with the humor arising from satirical observations on the clients and their behavior or desires. The film covers four fantasies or jobs, with a final gag to pad out matters, and only passing attention is ever given to the “tailors” themselves. Romantic entanglements and personal crises dot the story, but they’re quick asides rather than featured plots. The lack of structure or an overarching story leaves the film somewhat shapeless, but the observations and wit are scathing and sometimes brutal in their cynicism.
The fantasies themselves run the gamut from predictable to bizarre. A cold open features the tailors managing a fantasy for a woman (Miao Pu) who wants to experience life as a political prisoner in Nazi Germany, with humor deriving from her difficult demands and the tailors’ wish to rid themselves of her. Her fantasy of being detained without trial or sentence is eyebrow-raising considering, uh, China, but the satire only gets more pointed in the first segment, “Honest Instincts”, about a chauffeur (Fan Wei) who wishes to experience life as a government official so he can have the opportunity to receive and turn down bribes involving money and sexual favors. Sure, no real life parallels there.
As a dry comedy, Personal Tailor seldom pauses for reactions or audience laughter. Spoken observations are acerbic and delivered with straight-faced, droll efficiency. This sort of humor has long been Ge You’s specialty and the rest of the actors are fine if not exceptional. The stars aren’t really the stars, anyway; they play second fiddle to the content, which references an assortment of Chinese scandals, social problems and silliness. “Bloody Vulgar” concerns a populist film director (Li Chengru) who wishes to achieve artistic enlightenment, while “Mo’ Money” features a poor woman (Song Dandan) who wishes for money. Political corruption, pretentious filmmakers, the nouveau rich and the hypocrisy of the wealthy – this is Personal Tailor’s fertile ground.
The humor here scores because it flies in the face of China’s publicized dogma that it’s a wonderful, wonderful place untouched by moral or material corruption. This is great stuff if you're knowledgeable about China’s current sociopolitical climate and like to raise a cynical eyebrow at the Party line. The script’s smart schadenfreude will easily reward that particular audience. Other audiences, however, should be wary. This is not a forthcoming film; too many jokes are buried in dialogue (or subtitles for the Chinese language-impaired) and conclusions are never reached. There is one maudlin aside during “Mo’ Money”, but it rings false considering the film’s many veiled takedowns. You already ate your cake, Feng Xiaogang – you can’t have it too.
Personal Tailor ends on a series of statements indicting China for its terrible environmental record and knocking keyboard warriors for their self-righteous hypocrisy. Feng disses the establishment and also the audience, thereby proclaiming that nobody is safe from his withering, cynical gaze. Honestly, that Feng does this is unfair because if you summarily take down every side of an argument, you don’t get leeway for your own opinion. Not that Feng really has one – after all, some men just want to watch the world burn. As a complete film, Personal Tailor falls way short but as a product of its culture and times, it’s rich and even enjoyable. It’s also so, so, so not for everyone.