SETTING A ‘MOOD’
Byline: Laurie Trott
NEW YORK — “I don’t collect things — it’s a burden,” William Chang Suk-ping says. Yet for someone who disdains clutter, he certainly has a good grasp of what a young woman might pack into her closet. Chang did triple duty as the costume designer, art director and editor for Wong Kar-wai’s latest film, the critically acclaimed “In the Mood for Love,” starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung and currently playing in New York and L.A. He supplied Cheung’s character, Su Li-zhen, with 21 cheongsams to slink around in.
By Western standards, the chic uniformity of the cheongsam seems exotic, but the slender style was standard dress in China until quite recently. “It was worn every day — there were no Western clothes,” Chang recalls. “My mother’s school uniform was a cheongsam.” Occidental fashion trends, however, have influenced it throughout the 20th century. In the Thirties, the dress loosened up, and sleeves were shortened to three-quarter-length. In the Forties, shoulder pads and tight waists reflected wartime looks. The late Eighties and early Nineties versions showed the influence of Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto. But despite this, Chang maintains that the cheongsam actually has a limited range. “You can move the sleeves, collar and hem up and down, but there’s not really that much you can do with it,” he says.
The film, which is the enigmatic love story of two neighbors who come together by default after learning that her spouse and his fiance are having an affair, is set in Hong Kong in the early Sixties, a time when the cheongsam had taken on the sleek lines of the sheath. Chang managed to find a vintage version that fit Cheung perfectly. Although he spent a brief period as a fashion designer some years ago after studying at the Vancouver School of Art, he elected not to create the costumes himself but instead found a Hong Kong tailor who had been around since the Sixties to make them. “There are fewer and fewer of them for this work,” Chang notes. “They’re getting old, and nobody wants to learn.”
The confining silhouette required that Cheung move and sit a certain way, recalling a more genteel time. But Chang also wanted the costumes to contradict her character’s emotional repression. The end result: snug-fitting, high-collared, leg-baring pieces in vibrant floral prints or sophisticated Op-Art graphics. While some of the textile patterns were readily available at fabric houses in Hong Kong, others were found around the globe.
While in Buenos Aires for the filming of Wong’s “Happy Together,” for instance, Chang found a group of vintage dresses that he ripped apart and stitched back together, giving him yards of fabric to play with.
“In The Mood For Love” received the Grand Prix de la Technique (for editing, production design and cinematography), while Tony Leung was named Best Actor at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. “I like any aspect of film,” Chang says, noting that control of all art direction is particularly satisfying. As for his influences, he says he likes Satyajit Ray for his “subtle emotional qualities” and Pier Paolo Pasolini for his “direct crudeness.” He also professes to admire “everything French, the most impressive being ‘The Conformist.”‘ That’s a pretty stylish choice for a man who claims he’s “not crazy about fashion.”