Top-grossing Chinese helmer Feng Xiaogang has alternated between romantic comedies and big-budget historical epics with remarkable consistency in recent years, padding out two pleasant servings of “If You Are the One” with an earthquake-themed tearjerker (“Aftershock”) and a drama of wartime famine (“Back to 1942”). Back in the laffer realm with “Personal Tailor,” a sly bit of satirical whimsy about a company that brings its clients’ fantasies of wealth and power to life, Feng has not only continued the trend but fashioned an unofficial sequel to one of his early hits, 1997’s “The Dream Factory.” An easy-on-the-eyes trifle with a few pleasingly sharp edges, “Tailor” is likely too mild and episodic to catch on offshore, though domestically it’s off to a fine start with $13 million — the second-highest opening of all time for a mainland release.
The central conceit of “The Dream Factory” — four friends making money by impersonating any characters requested by their clientele — has been taken to more elaborate situational extremes here. “What you don’t dare imagine, we dare to do,” goes the slogan of Personal Tailor, a company that provides a far more benign version of the services offered in David Fincher’s “The Game,” allowing regular men and women to see their wildest dreams temporarily realized. We get a glimpse of their handiwork in the film’s amusing prologue, in which a woman willingly submits to interrogation, detainment and a six-day hunger strike as the star of her own WWII resistance fantasy, playfully shot in black-and-white.
Personal Tailor is run by Zhong Yang (Feng regular Ge You), the “director of dreams,” and his resourceful employees Miss Bai (Bai Baihe), the “fantastician”; Lu Xiaolu (Li Xiaolu), the “caterer of whims”; and Ma Qing (Zheng Kai), the “spiritual anesthetist.” For all their elaborate titles, however, they’re essentially members of a scrappy, high-concept acting troupe, called upon to wear as many hats as possible, literally and figuratively, in order to satisfy their clients’ demands. From this premise, Wang Shuo’s script strings together three vignettes (well, three-and-a-half), getting in a few modest digs at China’s political, artistic and economic values in the process.
In the first segment, “Honest Instincts,” a chauffeur (Fan Wei) whose previous high-ranking employers were all busted for accepting bribes, decides to test his own moral resilience by assuming the role of a village chief. Local peasants, foreign dignitaries and his own staff, all played by the Personal Tailor quartet (outfitted in an array of costumes by Dora Ng Li Lo), do their utmost to tempt him with financial and even sexual favors, though as Yang tartly observes, the “chief” turns out to be susceptible to a much more banal form of corruption.
Feng indulges in some playful self-parody in the second and most overtly comedic yarn, “Bloody Vulgar,” centered around a massively successful commercial filmmaker (Li Chengru) who, tired of winning awards like the “Pacific Rim Pandering Prize” and “Sell-out Screenplay of the Year,” yearns for low-budget art-cinema respectability. Featuring a brief cameo by Jackie Chan (one of the film’s producers), the tale pokes outlandish if somewhat overstretched humor at the differences between high and low culture. Once again Yang supplies a crucial bit of wisdom, and one of the pic’s best lines: “Chinese films, however bad, are never art.”
The most touching and trenchant of the three tales, “Mo’ Money,” finds the Personal Tailor crew returning a favor to the impoverished Mrs. Dan (Song Dandan), allowing her to play the part of a billionaire for a day. Cloaked in expensive finery and perfume, and spending her $14 million daily allowance on swanky real estate, Mrs. Dan gets an ample taste of the high life, as well as a sense of the dissatisfactions and undesirable obligations that it brings. If this development strikes some viewers as an apologia for the rich, or an argument against social mobility, it’s entirely consistent with Feng’s dryly ironic worldview, acknowledging the sheer difficulty of retaining any sort of principles in a position of power.
While Zhao Xiaoshi’s widescreen cinematography and Shi Haiyang’s production design supply no shortage of visual polish, “Personal Tailor” remains a modest, low-pulse endeavor throughout, meandering from one story to the next and never allowing any of its four principal characters to really come into focus. Yet over the course of its generally absorbing if overlong 117-minute running time, it offers an appreciably sympathetic take on the lure of fantasy, the pleasures of role play and the thrill of commanding the multitudes — which is to say that it is, among other things, a film about filmmaking.