“In front of beauty, we are all equal,” declares Patrick, a fashion magazine editor. Having been ousted from his perch at Celebrity, China’s top fashion monthly, he decides to start a rival publication, Modern, and go toe-to-toe with his former colleagues peddling glamour to the aspirational masses. But a few setbacks cause him to take a u-turn, and he begins to find beauty in the ordinary, seeing fashion as a conduit rather than a barrier for the common masses to appreciate the virtues of everyday life.
It’s a wonderfully egalitarian message but one that proves to be conflicting over the course of the movie, which begins as an ode to monied elitism. The feeble Zhou Xiaohui (Vic Chou) is being schooled by fashion magazine legend Alex (Alan Tam), the stout, studded leather glove wearing, Chinese male version of Anna Wintour. Alex spouts pearls of wisdom like, “A big man is fashioned by fashion,” “Foster a sense of class consciousness,” and “Fashion is making people envy you.” The eager and impressional Xiaohui soaks this up and is immediately christened Patrick by his new boss.
He makes a quick rise to Celebrity’s associate editor, where he exacts a similar reign of fashion terror on his underlings, chastising them for mispronouncing the names of designer labels or for wearing thermal underwear beneath their trousers. Patrick thrives in this world where, as he proclaims, elegance and vulgarity are defined by magazine editors. That’s not exactly the outlook of someone who ends up championing the proletariat.
His re-education happens by turns, including a Jerry Maguire-like dismissal after his star begins to eclipse that of his mentor. The allure of high-end fashion and the exclusivity that it promotes begin to fall away as the movie wears on. Patrick hires a ragtag staff that have no business in fashion publishing. Besides a wedding photographer and a traditional Chinese arts and craftsman as his designer, he strings along his faithful tracksuit-wearing assistant Yinghong (Vivian Hsu) and gets financial backing from his unemployed but wealthy friend Yangyang (Kimi Qiao Renliang).
Their difficulties establishing Modern first drive him to compete for the same swank mantle as Celebrity. He pursues a major shoot with a reclusive singer and idol Qi Xi and tries to lure his former advertisers. But eventually, the movie begins to posit that real fashion is liberating; it’s what brings people to beauty that is all around and not what brings people multiple carat stones or Italian designers. Moreover, it involves thinking outside the box; one must stand out and go against expectations in order to be successful.
On the face of it, Sleepless Fashion seems to uphold a plebeian sensibility and possibly move in the opposite direction of the culture of rampant conspicuous consumption that has characterized much of China’s last decade or so. At the same time, it subtly advocates that very sense of consumerism. The words contrast with the images presented, and the movie never really eschews the glamour of Celebrity. Even the canvas it’s painted on is that of a bright, aspirational, and upwardly mobile China.
Something else to chew on is the emphasis on individuality, opportunity, and the self-made man. Modern gives several characters a chance to reinvent themselves; Patrick reverts to his Chinese name after his ouster, and Yangyang tries to prove himself to his nouveau riche father. One could mine a lot from the national and cultural contexts of this narrative focus.
As a study, this film is more thoughtful than I expected, with credit to some of the secondary actors. Hsu offers a lot of warmth and tenderness and transforms Yinghong into more than a chipper lackey. Qiao also has a few fine moments as someone struggling to define himself on his own terms. Still, the movie doesn’t rise to its potential because the two main actors never fully inhabit their roles. A gaunt and bleary eyed Chou occasionally finds his footing but Xiaohui lacks that inner drive that is fueling his venture, and his outbursts. Tam, meanwhile, isn’t playing a character so much as he is walking through a part as Alan Tam.
“我們的路” (“Our Road”) by the Chopstick Brothers:
Alt Title: Living with Fashion
Prod: Wang Zhe; Song Guangcheng
Dir: Yin Lichuan 尹麗川
Writer: Yin Lichuan 尹麗川
Cast: Vic Chou 周渝民; Alan Tam 譚詠麟; Vivian Hsu 徐若瑄; Kimi Qiao Renliang 喬任梁; Chun Xiao 春曉; Wang Shuili 王水利; Tong Lei 佟磊; Shu Yaoxuan 舒耀瑄; Lam Suet 林雪; Yu Nan 余男
Time: 93 min
Country: Mainland China