Film Review: Personal Tailor

Sharp satire details a half-dozen cases from a Chinese firm that tries to fulfill its clients' fantasies.

Like TV's old "Fantasy Island," Personal Tailor lets a few guest stars play out their dreams in stories with moral overtones. The movie's carefree style and ingratiating cast help disguise a cynical outlook, making this one of the more intriguing releases from China this year.

Director Feng Xiaogang's recent movies include big, lumbering historical epics Back to 1942 and Aftershock, but he made his reputation with sunny, crowd-pleasing comedies like If You Are the One. Personal Tailor mimics the latter's easygoing charm while tackling some pretty intractable modern-day problems.

The title refers to a company run by Yang (the extravagantly talented Ge You) that pulls together elaborate settings and characters to persuade its clients that they are living their dreams. In the opening black-and-white segment, Ge plays a debonair but evil Nazi colonel so his client can enact a Resistance agent's martyrdom.

It's not a very promising start, but Shuo Wang's episodic screenplay throws out so many good ideas that they overtake the weak ones. In "Honest Instincts," a chauffeur played by Fan Wei wants to be a good politician, unlike the corrupt ones he's driven around. As the "Chief," he asks Yang's staff to tempt him with illegal offers, leading to some bright, inventive scams. It takes a massage from a "Secretary Lu" (a winsome Li Xiaolu) for the Chief to lose his scruples.

In the longest segment, "Bloody Vulgar," a blockbuster film director (Li Chengru) wants to give up schlock for "high art," despite Yang's belief that "Chinese movies, however bad, are never art." Operating on the theory that if they like something, it's not good enough to be art, Yang and his staff immerse Li in hilariously pretentious performance pieces.

Staffers Bai (Bai Baihe, who is in the weepy romantic hit The Stolen Years) and Ma Qing (Zheng Kai) help out in "Mo' Money," a sweet-natured fable about a poor woman (Song Dandan) who gets to pretend that she's wealthy for a day. Being rich is harder than it looks, as Yang has to instruct Song about how to treat servants dismissively, how to spend too much money on real estate, and how to cheat employees. "Behind every billionaire lies a mountain of debt," he explains.

Ge plays several roles in Personal Tailor: peasant, tycoon, even a Thai prince. In each he is unfailingly smart, funny and appealing. Bai and Li make a formidable pair, alternately seductive and brittle.

Personal Tailor looks as good as just about any recent Hollywood comedy, and feels about a half-year newer. Characters make fun of blogs, complain about McMansions, film themselves on smartphones, and take sex in all its iterations for granted.

If Personal Tailor seems slapdash, even sloppy at times, it may be because the movie ran into censorship problems. Presenting politicians as universal cheats and the wealthy as above the law was not enough for Feng. He ends Personal Tailor with disturbing examples of China's pollution troubles. As Bai notes, "This is our fault, we created this mess." It's an odd but effective ending to a consistently surprising comedy.