Here’s another Chinese movie that’s been killing it at the Chinese box office lately. I don’t believe I’ve seen anything else by director Feng Xiaogang. Well, I bounced off The Banquet (2006) once. Apparently he’s quite popular in China. Personal Tailor is a comedy, and the basic premise involves a company that helps people live out their dreams as role-playing scenarios. (The company motto is, “Fulfilling others by debasing ourselves.”) This creates an episodic commentary on various hot topics of today, including government corruption, the ambitions of the Chinese film industry, the behavior of the new Chinese multi-billionaires, and environmental degradation. There’s another episode that’s a bit garbled, and I’ve seen speculation elsewhere that it may have run afoul of censors. It didn’t make much sense.
Understanding another culture’s comedy is always dicey in any event, and I’m sure I missed a lot of the jokes here. (The crowd I saw it with at Pacific Place Cinemas was heavily Chinese, and they were laughing at bits that were opaque to me.) Still, there were plenty of jokes that seemed funny to me too, and the basic themes were very clear. The episodic structure made for a meandering film, and certainly not all the gags were equally good. The episode about the film industry centered on a director who has made it rich making “vulgar” films (he’s the winner of the Pacific Rim Pandering Prize) and who now wants to become artistically serious. This is apparently a bit of self-parody on Feng’s part, since he started out making popular comedies but has tried his hand at a couple of serious historical films recently. (The Banquet was a loose adaptation of Hamlet.) The satire of avant garde artistry is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s actually pretty funny. For that matter, the final episode, in which the four members of the dream company apologize to the environment for the pollution, is pretty much dead serious, although it exits on a joke.
If cross-cultural comedy is sometimes difficult to understand, a popular film like this also provides a fascinating snapshot of how a culture perceives itself. The anxieties about modernization, Westernization, and capitalism are what give many of the jokes their barbs. This film seeks to soothe those anxieties, by implying, for instance, that the super-wealthy lead very difficult lives that the common person wouldn’t want to be trapped in. For me, the episode about government corruption was perhaps the most eye-opening. Apparently Chinese censors are fully on-board with satirical criticism of Party members who take bribes. Likewise for the apology for pollution, and the general sense that economic progress comes with a great price. Perhaps it’s the case that self-criticism is always easier to handle than criticism from outsiders.