Why Costume Design is a Snapshot of Hong Kong Life

This story is part of a collaboration between Zolima CityMag and the Hong Kong Design Centre’s new design knowledge platform bodw+. Over the next several months, we will explore how design underpins Hong Kong life. 

There’s an old joke that circulates among Oscar buffs who get a kick out of entering the yearly office pool, when they make their best guesses as to who will win. The joke is that the more obvious the work, the more likely the award. Latex often carries the day for Best Makeup. Similarly, the more Napoleonic gowns and Ancient Roman finery, the better a film’s chance of walking away with the award for Best Costume Design. Case in point: the most recent film to win the award with a contemporary setting was The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in 1994, and that was a film that featured drag queens. This year’s winner: fashion-forward, fantastical Cruella.

At its best, costume design anywhere in the world has a subtle hand in telling the story, and telegraphing what the characters are thinking and feeling; it can mirror their arcs and often does. Think of Diane Keaton’s menswear statement from Annie Hall, the garishly offensive excess of the ruling elites in fantasy film The Hunger Games, or the slow transition of Tony Manero from neighbourhood striver to slick dance floor king in Saturday Night Fever

Photos: Longman Leung’s Anita (2021), with costume design by Karen Yip and Dora Ng that traced the rise of Anita Mui from singing contest winner in their early 1980s, when Hong Kong was still unsure of its place in the world. Courtesy Edko Films.

Of course, Hong Kong’s cinematic costume work tells viewers where the characters are as well. “Contemporary movies are the mainstream in Hong Kong,” says costume designer Karen Yip, whose credits include Exiled (2006), Cold War (2012), and last year’s Limbo and Anita, for which she’s been nominated for a 40th Hong Kong Film Award with collaborators Bruce Yu and Dora Ng.“But no matter what the genre is, costume design must meet the needs of the director and the script, allowing the actors to freely express the character.”

Looking back through the history of Hong Kong film, costume design has often provided a glimpse of how the city was growing and where it was socially. As director Ann Hui describes it, she needs her costume designers to contribute more than simply nice clothes, and that research alone isn’t always enough. Hui points to Arthur Penn’s 1967 crime drama Bonnie and Clyde as a model she’s worked from for decades. “[It] captured aspects of the age without trying to create a replica in full,” she says. “The film went for a feeling more than historical accuracy, which is what we [Hui and costume designer Tony Au] did in Love in a Fallen City. I fell foul of everyone on that when I was trying for verisimilitude.” Yip agrees, noting that, “After reading the script carefully, I’ll have meetings with the director to get to know the style and tone of the film, the background and personality of each character, the various scenes and special requirements in the script.”

The feeling Hui refers to stems from the mood and tone created by the film’s visuals, which in the case of Hong Kong films also drop hints about where the city was coming from and where it was going; from rural hinterland to colony, to a link between East and West, modern financial hub and a regional trailblazer.

“Costume design plays a very important role in Hong Kong stories. Mention some titles and we immediately think of the character design as much as the movie,” says Man Lim-chung, an art director, production designer, costume designer and director of 2020’s Ann Hui documentary Keep Rolling. “For example, A Better Tomorrow makes you think of Mark’s trench coat right away. In Young and Dangerous you think of the long hair, the tattoos, the black leather motorcycle jackets and vests. And Infernal Affairs is that black leather suit jacket. The list goes on and on.”

Photos: Seven Dos Santos’ costumes in 2021’s Hand Rolled Cigarette finally embraced Hong Kong’s diversity and internationalism. Courtesy Edko Films.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, Hong Kong’s film landscape was dominated by period martial arts epics, the majority produced by Shaw Studios and Golden Harvest. At the time, notes Man, “there was no such title as art director. There was only costume co-ordinator, set dresser and prop master.” The emergence of the New Wave in the 1980s marked a creative turning point for filmmaking, which started taking pages from Hollywood, Europe and other parts of Asia for its influences. It was around this time that the costume designer formally separated itself from art and production design. Costume design titans such as William Chang (Wong Kar-wai’s right hand), Tony Au (1984’s Love in a Fallen City), Bruce Yu (a John Woo regular noted for Hard Boiled in 1992), and Lee Pik-kwan (1998 fantasy epic The Storm Riders, Infernal Affairs, 2002 and Anselm Chan’s Ready or Knot from 2021) all hold all three titles. Dora Ng (Peter Chan’s He’s a Woman She’s a Man,1994) has just two titles; she’s not a production designer. The job titles were lifted from the vastly different Hollywood production system and in the flush 1980s, the division of labour was able to be more formalised.

Regardless of how many hats a costume designer wears, the craft is crucial to the visual language of Hong Kong’s films, which as Yip noted have swung back towards the contemporary. But even in so-called period pieces, it reflects the moment of production. Man says that film and television, and the costumes on display, “play an important role in reflecting and influencing society at the same time. Film costume designers also add elements of popular culture, especially after the 1980s, and were very influenced by trends form Europe, America and Japan.” Film costumes at the time were peppered with Harajuku fashion and Madonna’s feminist envelope pushing because so were the streets. “If we talk about the costumes of contemporary Hong Kong movies, I would say they need to be closely aligned with the pulse of the times, including traditional cultural values, so that the characters constructed by the movie resonate with audiences,” he reasons.

Indeed, Hong Kong’s transformation can be seen in its film costumes starting with the city’s emergence as a dynamic urban centre in the late 1980s and mid-90s. Often referred to as a kind of Wild West in terms of its freewheeling economy, the era was reflected in the push and pull of experimentation and development versus the anxiousness brought on by rapid progress. The Young and Dangerous (Lee Pik-kwan) franchise was just that—fast, slick, glossy and risky—as were the films lumped together as Category III films: violent, sexy action movies that mirrored the devil may care mood at the time. Once seen, few viewers will ever forget Chingmy Yau’s leather hot pants and thigh high boots from Clarence Fok’s Naked Killer (1992, with costumes by Shirley Chan) and Yu’s trench coat in Woo’s pulp crime classic, A Better Tomorrow, accessorised with a burning US$100 bill.

Mabel Cheung’s An Autumn’s Tale (1987) used its costumes to illustrate where the city was (in Chow Yun-fat’s humble Sam) and where it wanted to go (in Cherie Chung’s aspirational Jennifer). Courtesy Mabel Cheung.

But the same period of time also produced films like Mabel Cheung’s An Autumn’s Tale (1987, art directors Christy Addis and Yank Wong), Patrick Tam’s Nomad (which won William Chang a Hong Kong Film Award for art direction in 1983) and Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (1987, Horace Ma). Each film focused on people who were lost and searching, sitting at personal crossroads and aiming to be something else. In Tale, the main character, Jennifer, tries her best to appear the polished Hong Kong student in New York she is, while her guide, Sam, comes across as the unsophisticated friend from home who needs to learn that same polish. It mimics the tension that existed in Hong Kong at the time, between a fast-maturing city and the traditional working-class or rural customs it was trying to shed. The costumes, be they overtly showy or understated and relatable, signalled Hong Kong as exciting and rewarding, backward and conflicted in equal measure.

The transitional 1990s and early 2000s were years of contrast, as demonstrated by the clash of colours on screens in the city’s fantasy epics, like 1993’s The Bride With White Hair, whose bright, statement costumes were designed by Emi Wada, Cheung Sun-yiu So Chin-fa and Siu Wing-yee, and Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II from 1992, which won the HKFA’s first Costume and Makeup Design award for Chang and Yu. It was also a time increasingly saturated by crime thrillers, best exemplified by Gordon Chan’s Beast Cops (1998). That film pivots on a cop, Tung, and his minute-to-minute swing between corruption and integrity. The costume choices by art director Alfred Chow and Hilda Choi swing from black to white and back again, with a couple of stops at a chequered grey. Tung is like Hong Kong in the years around the handover, perched on the border between its colonial past and an ambiguous future.

Photos: Pang Ho-cheung’s popular Love in a Puff (2010), Love in the Buff (2012) and Love off the Cuff (2017) dressed Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue in accessible, hop street wear that was native to Hong Kong as a demonstration of the city embracing its local flair. Courtesy Hong Kong International Film Festival.

By the time the 2000s rolled around, a more contemplative focus on modern challenges had settled over the city, which was looking inward more intensely – analysing itself, but also celebrating itself. Pang Ho-cheung’s Love Trilogy, Love In a Puff, Love in the Buff and Love Off the Cuff (2010 to 2017, with costume designers Chung Cho-ting, Phoebe Wong and Polly Chan) marked something of a turning point for costume design. With smaller budgets than in the past, and production volume down to a new normal of around 50 films per year, compared to 350 to 400 in the late 1980s, costume designers have to do more with less. Costuming isn’t nearly as ornate, both by necessity and by narrative choice. 

When Puff was released, the film was in step with a growing trend towards embracing the peculiarities of Hong Kong. Audiences saw leads Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as “the Hong Kong Man and Hong Kong Woman,” says Man, who worked in the films’ imaging department. Pang shot to fame for his relatable, colloquial verbal style and storytelling, and he let that bleed into his visuals too. A lot of the costuming for his films were local off-the-rack items that were recognisable to the audience. “The costumes, the clothes they wore were very good-looking, very street and very fashionable,” says Man.

Cindy Mok dressed star Charlene Choi and other women roles in stylish designer wear that reflected Hong Kong’s modern sophistication in 77 Heartwarmings (2021). Courtesy Emperor Motion Pictures.

The years since Pang’s trilogy stepped into the self-analytical spotlight have been dotted with stories interrogating what it means to be a Hongkonger even more intensely. Chan Kin-long’s Hand Rolled Cigarette (with costume designer Chan Chi Ching Dos Santos) is notable for the cosmopolitan textures, colours and patterns that are finally being recognised as part of the fabric of the city, while at the same time rom-coms like Herman Yau’s 77 Heartwarmings (2021, costume designer Cindy Mok), based on Erica Li’s novel, are basking in a lingering aspirational attitude, particularly for women. The characters have finally found their footing, are spit-polished, and ready for an international stage. Most recently, Longman Leung’s Anita not only reflects the evolution of an artist but of Hong Kong as a city. As the film tracks Mui’s career, from awkward talent show winner to feminist and LGBTQ icon and reigning queen of Cantopop, Yip was true to life, but also just nostalgic enough to tap the reflective mood of a post-Covid Hong Kong. The film teems with outfits that recall “the good old days,” something the pandemic-battered city is wistful for.

Louise Wong as Anita Mui breaking into filmmaking in Rouge, by Stanley Kwan. On set with director Longman Leung.
On the cusp of stardom with her sister Ann (Fish Liew) in her early 1980s nightclub performance days. Courtesy Edko Films.

“Fashion is a beautiful way for anyone to express their personality. That’s why I chose to study fashion and textiles,” says Yip. “Movies are lifelike, so we need to customise the effects of costume according to genre and story. I wanted to capture [Anitas] look without looking dated, so I tweaked the fabric, colour palette and tailoring slightly. Costume design does not stop at buying or making clothes.” It’s far more than that – it’s a snapshot of where we are as Hongkongers.

This story was produced with the support of bodw+. Zolima CityMag maintains editorial independence over its content. To read this story on bodw+, please visit here.

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