Feng Xiaogang
Rick Loomis/Contour by Getty Images

Outsiders seeking to understand modern China need look no further than director Feng Xiaogang and his movies.

Feng, perhaps best known in the West for helming 2001’s Donald Sutherland starrer “Big Shot’s Funeral,” has built a career on films that mostly steer a middle course between crowdpleaser and culturally acceptable art. No wonder he is often referred to as China’s Steven Spielberg. He was also mainland China’s first director invited to imprint his hands in the cement sidewalk in front of Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre, in November last year. (Chinese conglom TCL bought naming rights to the iconic theater in 2013.)

Intense in demeanor, and rarely seen without a baseball cap, Feng is notably hyper-modern. His stories are full of up-to-the-minute jokes, and his characters are often China’s new middle-class climbers. They’re always trying to better themselves, duly earning the mockery Feng pours on in large quantities, but without malice.

Feng’s most recent film, “Personal Tailor,” which bowed in December, is among his edgiest. A sequel to 1997’s “Dream Factory,” the pic stars frequent Feng collaborator Ge You as the leader of a motley team of friends who run a company that specializes in making rich clients’ fantasies come true.

The film is rife with layers of ironic commentary about contempo China, social mores and political hypocrisies. Scenarios include a chauffeur who dreams of being an incorruptible civic leader, and one in which a scavenger learns that being a real-estate magnate is harder work than it looks.

The movie has earned $115 million at the box office, and made good on a promise by Feng to Huayi Brothers, his longtime distributor, to deliver a bounceback film, after 2012’s “Back to 1942” flopped. A historical epic about a famine in China’s Henan province during the Second Sino-Japanese War, “Back to 1942,” one of the most expensive films ever made in China — with a budget exceeding $35 million — earned just RMB 365 million ($59 million).

Huayi Brothers’ success has been closely tied to the box office of Feng’s pics for the past few years. Poor advance reviews of “Personal Tailor” weighed down the company’s stock in mid-December, with shares dropping by nearly 6%, wiping more than $1 billion off the company’s market capitalization. But after the film came close to setting an opening day B.O. record, the stock rebounded, recovering most of the lost ground in two days, and restoring the company’s cap of more than $6 billion.

Feng began as a stage designer before establishing himself as a screenwriter and occasional actor, and in the 1990s, he was one of the first directors to deliver mass-entertainment movies distributed over the Chinese New Year period.

He made his name with comedy-satires “Dream Factory” and “Be There or Be Square” (1998), and gained a modest international reputation with 2004’s “A World Without Thieves.”

In 2001, he was one of the first mainland Chinese directors to have a film (“Big Shot’s Funeral”) backed by Columbia TriStar’s short-lived Hong Kong production unit. But Feng’s reputation and popularity in China were truly sealed with 2003’s “Cell Phone,” a mockery of evolving social mores in contemporary China that was partially set in the television industry.

A later pic, the romantic comedy “If You Are the One,” which grossed $44 million in 2008-09, matches a feckless tech millionaire with a flighty air stewardess. They agree not to be romantic, but stars Ge and Shu Qi have enough chemistry that the picture sparked an outbound tourism boom and a 2010 sequel; “If You Are the One 2” grossed $75 million in China. All of those films took advantage of the December-through-Chinese New Year release window.

Feng has been afforded a large degree of creative freedom by Huayi Brothers — and earned a great deal of personal wealth. And in the past decade, he has alternated comedies with darker material: films on war (2007’s “Assembly”), natural disasters (2010’s “Aftershock”) and famine (“Back to 1942”).

That last film’s failure appeared to open the door for a generation of new, younger directors to dominate the headlines through 2013 — until the rebound of “Personal Tailor.” Feng and Huayi might have hoped for even greater success for the comedy, but even in today’s China, where box office records are regularly broken and the measure of a hit inflates each year, it proved that Feng is still the man to beat.

A six-film retrospective of the director’s work is under way at the British Film Institute in London, with the filmmaker himself scheduled to appear on Feb. 21. It won’t be Feng’s first trip to London. On a previous visit a decade ago, he reportedly went in search of the front door of the house of Hugh Grant’s William Thacker, which was featured prominently in Roger Michell’s hit romantic comedy “Notting Hill.”

These days, once again, it’s more likely young filmmakers will be looking to pay that kind of homage to Feng.

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