Blood and Silk: Costume in Hong Kong Cinema

by Eleanor M. Farrell

The huge success of Ang Lee's 2000 martial arts/arthouse crossover epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has opened the eyes of many Western filmgoers to the sheer beauty of films set in historic/fantasy China. But Lee's hit owes much to the impressive history of Chinese cinema itself, particularly that produced in the fertile soil of Hong Kong, which has long been appreciated by a smaller (but fervent) audience in the U.S. In the 1960s and '70s, the Shaw Brothers studio reigned with an outpouring of exuberant, bloody, sword martial arts epics, more or less comparable in popularity to Westerns in the U.S. The five years from 1986-1991 produced defining films from top Hong Kong directors John Woo (A Better Tomorrow, 1986), Wong Kar-wai (Days of Being Wild, 1991), Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China, 1991), Jackie Chan (Project A II, 1987), Ching Siu-tung (A Chinese Ghost Story, 1987) and Stanley Kwan (Rouge, 1987), who continue to entertain HK cinema patrons with a heady bombardment of chivalrous flying monks, seductive ghosts, hopping vampires, weapon-laden gangsters, tragic concubines, wizards with architecturally impossible eyebrows, and other wonderful creations.

A Chinese Ghost Story
Demon wedding finery from A Chinese Ghost Story
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

The pace of Hong Kong filmmaking is as far from Hollywood as can be imagined: directors may make up to a half-dozen films each year, actors even more than that. Budgets are usually small, and key team members are all multi-hyphenates. Costume in Hong Kong films, especially in the historical epics and martial arts extravaganzas, is an integral part of the art direction and cinematography. Tim Yip's efforts for Crouching Tiger earned him an Oscar nomination; in the film's companion book he discusses the concept of toning down colors to achieve a sense of space. To Western eyes, of course, historical Chinese dress is already intriguing due to its strangeness. Crouching Tiger's costumes are both decorative and wearable (with the exception of Jen's ornate wedding ensemble), permitting the characters to execute their martial arts skills while adding to the sumptuous look of the film's setting. (Crouching Tiger star Michelle Yeoh had already perfected this look in 1993's Wing Chun.)

Wing Chun
Michelle Yeoh in Wing Chun -- ready to kick butt!
Crouching Tiger
A Chinese Ghost Story

Earlier martial arts efforts by Tsai Hark, Ching Siu-tung, Ronnie Yu et al set the standard for incorporating over-the-top costume design into a quasi-historical, fantastic or even surreal setting. A Chinese Ghost Story (1987), one of the most influential HK genre films and a worthy blueprint for the next decade, garbs its beautiful ghostly heroine Siu-sin (Joey Wong Jo-yin), in trailing white or red silk robes that float seductively around Ning Tsai-shen (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), the hapless but good-hearted scholar who falls in love and follows her to hell to save her. Denizens of the fiendish regions in these films are usually quite elegantly dressed: hopping vampires in elaborate court robes, demon warriors in shiny black armour and ornate headdresses, evil monks in jewel-encrusted pointy hats.

A Chinese Ghost Story
Bride with White Hair

For his 1993 hit and now firmly established cult classic, The Bride with White Hair, director Ronnie Yu hired award-winning Japanese designer Emi Wada (who won an Oscar for her designs for Ran and a Hong Kong Film Award for The Soong Sisters) to take the martial arts epic in a new visual direction. Ostensibly set in the Ming dynasty period, the film incorporates Manchurian, Tibetan and Indian motifs into the costumes of the evil Blood Cult, and the movie was shot, mostly at night, on a deliriously color-saturated set described by art director Eddie Ma as "Chinese gothic architecture." Yu and cinematographer Peter Pau (who also did this duty on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) combine imaginative editing and wire work with the intensity of stars Brigitte Lin Chin-hsia and Leslie Cheung to transcend budget constrictions and make this passionate love tragedy one of the most visually opulent contributions to the canon.

Bride with White Hair
TheBride with White Hair does a quick costume change
Leslie Cheung and Brigitte Lin in Bride with White Hair

This rich period of chivalric epic/folklore stories, including other movies such as Dragon Inn, Green Snake, the Swordsman series, and Ashes of Time, continued to develop these cinematographic traditions, as well as incorporating a significant amount of gender confusion and cross-dressing. The villain in Bride with White Hair is a male/female Siamese twin, while the lead character in Swordsman II, Asia the Invincible (Brigitte Lin), changes sex in the process of aquiring occult powers (and is also pretty deadly with her tapestry needles). The colorful costuming used as part of imaginative and often witty action sequences (not to mention the beauty of the actors themselves!) makes watching these films a pure visual feast. Finally, to compensate for possible overdoses of tasteful silk brocade, HK regulars display their senses of humor in a very silly 1993 film, The Eagle Shooting Heroes. Dressed in gaudy ensembles filched from the wardrobes of the '70s/'80s low-budget productions, the stars of Ashes of Time -- as well as a few additional popular HK actors -- poke fun at the genre in a musical extravaganza complete with mind-controlling centipedes and villains in monster suits.

Eagle Shooting Heroes
The Eagle Shooting Heroes put on a show...
Once Upon a Time in China Project A A Better Tomorrow
The sartorial elegance of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun Fat

But even with films set in more contemporary periods, the costumes add immensely to the film's look. Tsui Hark resurrected the historical epic with Once Upon a Time in China, chronicling the adventures of the Ching dynasty hero, Wong Fei-hong, and emphasizing East-West cultural tensions in a 1870s setting (and Jet Li looks really cool in period hat and shades, using his umbrella as a very effective weapon). Jackie Chan's Project A and its sequel, Project A II, considered his best work by many critics, use their turn-of-the-last-century settings to capitalize on the Harold Lloyd/Buster Keaton-inspired slapstick action. Anita Mui's 1930s clothing for Rouge enhances the ethereal quality of her ghostly appearance in contemporary 1980s Hong Kong. The long, heavy coat worn by Chow Yun Fat's character in A Better Tomorrow became the fashion statement for young male fans when the film debuted in 1986 -- a true testament to screen style in the hot and humid Hong Kong summer weather.

In last year's In the Mood for Love (set in 1962), lead actor Maggie Cheung Man-yuk (wearing an assortment of William Cheung-designed cheongsam dresses of marvellous period patterns) seems to float languidly past co-star Tony Leung Chiu-wai throughout the film. (Her swinging handbag and his striking necktie also serve as plot points.) The film's director Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong's most celebrated -- and probably most frustrating -- art film visionary, works with cinematographer Christopher Doyle and editor/art director William Cheung on all of his movies, which are masterpieces of mood and light, sound and color. Known for filming hundreds of thousands of feet of film, working without a script, changing the story from day to day, adding or dropping entire characters, and then spending months or even years editing a movie, Wong Kar-wai amazes with his miraculous ability to come up with such diverse, personal, and visually intoxicating films as the existential epic Ashes of Time, the gay "falling out of love" story (and Cannes honoree) Happy Together, or the giddy paean to obsession, Chungking Express.

In the Mood for Love
Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are not quite In the Mood for Love
Ashes of Time

William Cheung (aka William Chang, Chang Suk-ping) is one of the top costume designers in the HK film community, although he often combines this job with that of art director, film editor, make up designer, songwriter, and more. Co-winner of the Technical Grand Prize in last year's Cannes Film Festival for In the Mood for Love, Cheung has also received many Golden Horse (Taiwan) and Hong Kong Film Awards for art and costume designs in his work with Wong Kar-wai (Happy Together, Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, Chungking Express) and other directors (Phantom Lover, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain). He also appeared in an episode of Kung Fu: The Legend Continues -- go figure.

Other costumers, art directors and production designers contributing to the wardrobes of wuxia heroes, triad fashion plates, demonic warlords and anguished loners include Nora Ng Lei Lo (Purple Storm, Comrades, Almost A Love Story), Yin Ji Kau, Piu Yan Muk and Ma Gwong Wing (Rouge), Emi Wada and Cheung Sin Yi (Bride with White Hair) and Po-ling Ng (Swordsman, Peking Opera Blues, Green Snake).

Ashes of Time

The San Francisco Connection

Bay Area filmgoers are blessed with an abundance of opportunities to view even the older Hong Kong repertoire, thanks to rental sources such as San Francisco's Le Video (a bit less daunting for beginners than the Asian video rental stores, although these are well worth checking out once you get hooked). A wide selection of Hong Kong videos and DVDs can be found online, from to Asian import sites. David Ian Bennett's Maian Dream web site has an extensive list of the latter, as well as other useful resources.

Better than video: catch these gorgeous films in a real theater! Laura Irvine's Hong Kong Movies in San Francisco web site is the place to bookmark for current and upcoming schedules around the Bay.

Upcoming for Summer/Fall 2002: Stanley Kwan's latest, Lan Yu, opened the SF Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Film Festival, and stays on for a week run at the Castro. Cult classic Master of the Flying Guillotine hits the big screen in late July, playing at Landmark's Lumiere in San Francisco. The next "Kung Fu Kult Klassics" series at the 4 Star begins on August 8th, and watch for the 6th Asian Film Festival (August 8-18) schedule. Finally, rumor has it Tsui Hark's Zu Warriors will get its U.S. theatrical release in September....


Michel Ciment et Hubert Niogret, "Entretien avec Leslie Cheung. Dix-huit ans de travail acharné", Positif, Issue 455, January 1999, pp. 96-99. (English translation)

Frederic Dannen and Barry Long, Hong Kong Babylon (Miramax Books, 1997)

Walter A. Fairservis, Jr., Costumes of the East (American Museum of Natural History/The Chatham Press, 1971)

Stefan Hammond, Hollywood East (Contemporary Books, 2000)

Stefan Hammond and Mike Wilkins, Sex and Zen and A Bullet in the Head (Fireside, 1996)

Ang Lee and James Schamus, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: A Portrait of the Ang Lee Film (Newmarket Press, 2000)

Lisa Odham Stokes and Michael Hoover, City on Fire: Hong Kong Cinema (Verso Books, 1999)

"The Making of Bride with White Hair" (featurette on *The Bride with White Hair* DVD, Tai Seng 45224, 1993)


Hong Kong Movies in San Francisco

Maian Dream

what's this wong kar wai -- Because We Have Taste

LeVideo: 1239 9th Avenue (between Lincoln & Irving), San Francisco, 415/242-2120

4 Star Theater: Clement @ 23rd Avenue, San Francisco. 415/666-3488.

Landmark Theaters: 415/352-0810, 650/32-MOVIE.

Cited Films

Title* Year Director Actors
Ashes of Time 1994 Wong Kar-wai Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Carina Lau, Jacky Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Charlie Cheung
A Better Tomorrow 1986 John Woo Chow Yun-fat, Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung
The Bride with White Hair 1993 Ronnie Yu Leslie Cheung, Brigitte Lin
A Chinese Ghost Story 1987 Ching Siu-tung Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong, Wu Ma
Chungking Express 1994 Wong Kar-wai Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Faye Wong, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin
Days of Being Wild 1991 Wong Kar-wai Leslie Cheung, Maggie Cheung, Carina Lau, Andy Lau
Dragon Inn 1992 Raymond Lee Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Cheung
The Eagle Shooting Heroes 1993 Jeff Lau Brigitte Lin, Leslie Cheung, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau, Veronica Yip, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Kenny Bee, Joey Wong, Maggie Cheung
Green Snake 1993 Tsui Hark Maggie Cheung, Joey Wong
Happy Together 1997 Wong Kar-wai Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai
In the Mood for Love 2000 Wong Kar-wai Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Mr. Vampire 1985 Ricky Lau Lam Ching-ying, Ricky Hui
Once Upon a Time in China 1991 Tsui Hark Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan
Project A 1983 Jackie Chan Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung
Project A II 1987 Jackie Chan Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung
Rouge 1987 Stanley Kwan Anita Mui, Leslie Cheung
Swordsman II 1991 Ching Siu-tung Jet Li, Brigitte Lin
Swordsman III: The East Is Red 1993 Ching Siu-tung and Raymond Lee Brigitte Lin, Yu Rong-guang, Joey Wong
Wing Chun 1993 Yuen Woo-ping Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain 1983 Tsui Hark Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung

*links to Internet Movie Database (usually has more details than Hong Kong Movie Database, which is also worth checking out)

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