Personal Tailor by Feng Xiaogang

Personal Tailor by Feng Xiaogang

“Personal Tailor” is an unique business which specializes in allowing their customers to escape their day-t0-day life and live their dreams by staging specific scenarios that are tailored to meet their requests , no matter how ridiculous or far-fetched, every client is able to “live the dream”.

It is a phenomenon how Feng Xiaogang has established himself as the voice of the people in terms of Mainland Chinese cinema. Nobody else that makes films as didactic and on-the-nose as he does and still be so loved and supported. His latest comedy Personal Tailor is a series of vignettes about its four employees taking on different clients and making their dreams come true. The clients include a chaffeur who wants to be an important authority figure, a schlock B-movie director who wants to learn the essence of good taste and a working class cleaning lady who gets to be rich for one day. The vignettes vary from farce, satire, the absurd and even sometimes the fantastical. Reality is out of the window but it is the fable-like quality that holds the piece together.

Longtime Feng Xiaogang leading man Ge You plays his classic comedy archetype, the swindler with the heart of gold. That character will never get old. Bai Baihe from last year’s hit Love is Not Blind and Li Xiao Lu from Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl are both charming and funny. Jackie Chan and Huang Bao Qiang also make small cameos to ease the investors, however neither should be a reason to see the film.

The star of the film is Feng Xiaogang himself, who in each vignette gives us his thoughts and commentary on topics like social class, materialism, rich vs. poor and reality vs. dreams. It is fun watching the four leads run around in costumes and trying to drive their client’s ambitions down so their business turns out a profit, but their characterizations are not developed. They are merely puppets to a Feng Xiaogang puppet show and only exist to deliver the director’s multiple messages. The heavy messaging has long been a trope of Feng’s films and it must be said that Personal Tailor is the most thinly veiled of all his works. If you haven’t seen any of Feng Xiaogang’s urban comedies, Personal Tailor may not be the place to start.

Lastly, the movie is too long. The segment where the team ventures out in the wild to apologize for man’s appalling crimes against nature is too far fetched and ‘tree huggy’ for my taste. Personal Tailor is by no means Feng Xiaogang’s best work and it probably wouldn’t have a very long shelf life after its Lunar Year theatrical release. For English speaking audiences, the film actually has good subtitles but its humor probably will be lost in translation. Even for Feng Xiaogang fans, this isn’t a movie to own in your Blu-ray collection. To them I say, go see it in theaters while it’s current and  get your laughs from the latest Feng Xiaogang social commentary. It is a sincere hopeful message, but for me, it’s still too didactic.

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Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.