In the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada, Anne Hathaway plays an aspiring journalist Andy Sachs who accidentally landed a job as the assistant to Miranda Priestly, the imperious editor of a glossy fashion magazine called Runway played flawlessly by a very demanding Meryl Streep (“Find me that piece of paper I had in my hand yesterday morning”). The film follows Sachs as she learns that beneath the glamourous veneer, the price for what Priestly describes as a job “a million girls would kill for” is simply too high.
In China, a new hit show has drawn comparisons with the hugely popular Hollywood fashion film. Albeit sounding more like the title of a Jane Austen novel, Pride and Price has been broadcast on Youku and Dragon Satellite TV simultaneously, and tells the story of two women’s careers at a fashion magazine.
The show, which is set in 2016 (it’s important for the producers to turn back the clock because it was probably the last year when multitudes of Chinese still read fashion magazines), follows the newly single college graduate Li Na (played by Song Zu’er) as she becomes an intern at Blossom, the fashion bible. She becomes embroiled in the power struggle between two fashion editors Chen Kaiyi, and Xiao Hongxue who are both vying for the position of editor-in-chief.
Chen, played by actress Song Jia, is the Miranda Priestly figure of the drama. Even though they kept her hair black (not Streep’s iconic silver hair in the role), the character wears sunglasses indoors and frequently dresses entirely in black with a bright red lipstick indicating she’s not to be messed with. Meanwhile, played by Hong Kong actress Anita Yuen, Xiao is a fashion editor dispatched from Hong Kong to help breathe new life into the publication which is battling with dwindling readership.
Who is going to succeed? Li, much like Andy Sachs, plays an underling who quickly discovers that her wardrobe upgrade comes at a steep price.
Directed by Wu Bai, who is known for gritty dramas like the recent anti-corruption series Crime Crackdown (see WiC553), the workplace series comes with some added suspense. That’s because the reason the role of editor-in-chief at Blossom is up for grabs is owing to former editor jumping off the roof of the office building. As the show progresses, however, audiences begin to question whether it was a suicide. Even more interestingly, his last message before plunging to his death was to ask his colleague to take care of Li, which suggests that the unassuming intern may unwittingly hold some answers to the mystery.
However, with all the talk about The Devil Wears Prada, lead actress Song has denied that her character is based on Meryl Streep’s iconic ice queen role. “Chen Kaiyi is not a one dimensional heroine. She’s not tough for the sake of being tough, showing strength for the sake of showing strength. That domineering female persona feels too superficial,” she told local media.
So far, viewers say Pride and Price is well-produced and a feast for the eyes, featuring a good mix of luxury fashions from overseas as well as domestic designers. It is also refreshing that it veers away from the stereotypical storyline of pitting two women against one another. In the end, Chen and Xiao find that they have more in common than they think and work together to stop a hostile takeover of the magazine.
There is also a feminist agenda to the show. In one episode, Xiao’s assistant Cai Fei is sexually harassed by a client at a dinner party. Even though he’s big advertiser Xiao picks up a wine bottle and whacks the back of his head.
When Chen catches wind of the incident, her (male) colleague suggests that she use it to take down the Hongkonger, accusing her of offending the magazine’s client. He also suggests burying the event so as not to embarrass Cai. But Chen comes to their defence: “Cai Fei is not as weak as you think. In fact, women are not as weak as you men think we are. If we keep the incident private, what’s the purpose of us even doing Blossom?”
Audiences say Pride and Price nimbly avoids the cliché rife in palace dramas: that women in high places are all catty and scheming. “The show depicts professional working women who are rational, mature and decisive. Their charisma doesn’t just come from their pursuit of self-realisation and ambition, it also lies in their willingness to help one another,” one critic applauded.
“In Pride and Price, the women come in all shapes and forms, each with their own shortcomings and short-sightedness. They are definitely not perfect. But they also should not be. If the producers had made the series about a modern-day palace drama, pitting women against one another, that would have been the biggest failure of the show,” another commented.
To have taken that route would have been – to use Miranda Priestly’s favourite word –“disappointing”.
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