Let's get fiscal

04/29/2021

Hong Kong’s humorist on the many interesting, yet questionable, roles accountants take on in film and TV



Move over, superheroes: a spate of recent movies features accountants in key roles or as central characters. And they neatly show the gulf between real life and perception of the profession.

In prime position we have Vanguard, the biggest new Jackie Chan action blockbuster for years. He plays the bodyguard of accountant Qin Guoli, because people who perform audits and provide tax advice need to have bodyguards, right? (Actually the only bodyguard my accountant friends need would be someone to slap their hands down every time they try to buy chunks of cheesecake at artisan coffee shops.)

In the movie, Jackie Chan protects the accountant with the typical array of guns, amphibious cars… and military-grade hoverboards. The whole thing ends with a fleet of warships battling the world’s largest quadcopter. So, not exactly a typical day in the life of an accountant (unless you work for some departments of the Big Four, of course).

Vanguard comes from the celebrated school of filmmaking which believes that you don’t need interesting characters or storylines as long as you have enough explosions.

At the opposite extreme is the completely explosion-free Soul, the newest film from Pixar, the company famed for its gripping characters and storylines. This movie reminds us that 151,000 human beings die every day, and reveals details of the person from the afterlife who has the job of keeping count of them: an accountant called Terry, who is armed with an abacus.

It’s a great film, but falls prey to the temptation of portraying accountants as obsessive number-crunchers who can’t bear to get a single digit wrong. There’s a discrepancy of one human being in the records of folk moving from The Great Before – a location in the film of pre-existence where new born souls get their personalities, quirks, and interests before going entering Earth – to The Great Beyond – a post-existence place of life where deceased souls go after leaving Earth – which leads the accountant to leap out of his chair and turn detective to get to the root of the problem. 

Back to the Vanguard-extreme, this month also saw the re-release of 1961 movie The Frightened City, which tells the story of a crooked accountant who makes money by organizing scams to get money from property developers. Yes, property developers! This is clearly an accountant who needs looking after, and could benefit from Jackie Chan’s accountant-protecting weaponry from Vanguard.

Meanwhile among the TV critics, there’s much discussion of controversial cartoon Family Guy – and one of the most criticized episodes concerned accounting. The main character, Peter Griffin, decides that Jewishness makes people financially successful and tries to persuade his son to covert to the faith. That storyline may work in the United States, but comes across as baffling in this part of the world.

Over on the film festival circuit, people are re-watching Danny Boyle’s first film, 1994 black comedy Shallow Grave, which is about an accountant, a doctor and a journalist finding a dead flatmate with a suitcase full of money. Predictably, the accountant is a super shy character who becomes increasingly introverted and paranoid, that is, until he’s ready to kill people. In my experience, accountants aren’t like Mr Boyle films them. Well, not all of them. Wait. Let’s not go there.

Moving on swiftly, we need to ask: Is there no movie that dares to show accountants in a realistic way?

Away from the blockbuster movies, I finally found one: a rather arty film called French Exit has just been launched on the festival circuit. The most memorable scene is a conversation in which an accountant patiently listens to a big-spending client, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, explaining that she has run out of cash. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” she says. “But I kept and kept not dying.”

So the client is now broke and wants the accountant to somehow solve this problem.

Now there, at last, is a big screen accountant-client relationship that most people in the business can fully identify with. “Been there,” accountants will mumble to their partners in the stalls.

It also provides a new slogan for accountants in retirement planning: How to Not Die Before the Money Runs Out.


That’s all Folks! 


Nury Vittachi is a bestselling author, columnist, lecturer and TV host. He wrote three storybooks for the Institute, May Moon and the Secrets of the CPAs, May Moon Rescues the World Economy and May Moon’s Book of Choices