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Talking ‘Grandmaster’ Costume Design with Oscar-Nominated William Chang

Talking 'Grandmaster' Costume Design with Oscar-Nominated William Chang

William Chang is certainly “The Grandmaster” of production/costume design and editing in terms of his long-time collaboration with director Wong Kar-wai. And even though he’s received his first Oscar nomination for costume designing the lyrical Ip Man martial arts extravaganza, you can’t separate his contribution to the overall look and editorial style of the movie.

“For me, I like to do the sets and costumes together and then think about the rhythm and the timing afterwards,” Chang explains. But “The Grandmaster” was a four-year production that was cut differently for China, France, and the U.S., each emphasizing a different flavor. (Apparently the director is still contemplating a definitive version for future release.)

The costumes were no less demanding in contributing to the look (120 pieces were created in nearly two years, including hand-made jewelry, embroidery, trimming and beading). The movie covers three different periods (early 20th century, 1920s/’30s and ’50s in Hong Kong) while embracing the distinctive styles between the wintry north and warm south. 

Northern scenes feature hand-quilted costumes lined with fur and heavy cotton. There are fur collars, fur hats, and shoes that are sewn with layers of fabric rather than leather. By contrast, they used lighter fabrics for the south: linen, silk, cotton, and special black lace and silk without collars. In addition, the men wear light silk, linen, and straw hats.

“I was looking for a lot of different shades of black to distinguish not only seasons but the mood in each scene,” Chang continues. “Blacks have blue or brown or purple, and the thickness of different silk and linen and cotton. Also, Gong [Zhang Ziyi] wears black in mourning for her father along with an embroidered flower.

“She’s very tiny so in the fight scenes she has to be feared and I created a big fur collar and thick wool coat with subtle embroidery for the train station fight. For Ip Man [Tony Leung], I sometimes used an unusual fabric: black slate silk with layers and layers of clay soil. It feels hot when it’s new and after you’ve worn it for a few years, it gets softer and softer.”

Not surprisingly, Chang’s favorite scene is the train station fight not only because of the costumes but also because of the surreal look with falling snow and smoke. “The way it’s shot is very powerful — it’s more abstract than the brothel fight, which is staged like a painting to me. We prolonged the timing. The train never ends. The slo-mo is used for different gestures and emotions. And even in the beginning of the scene you can see the silk lining coming out of the robes. 

Wong establishes the rhythm and his collaborators move with the choreography.

“It’s like dancing but dancing with him.”

Our TOH! video interview with Wong Kar-wai is here.

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