Tim yip vs. 8 masters
Working with Tsui Hark, Wayne Wang, Stanley Kwan, Clara Law, Tsai Ming-liang, Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige
2005-03-11 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Andrew Huang
The name Tim Yip probably needs no introduction for any movie buff for he is the world famous Oscar winner for Ang Lee's kungfu masterpiece "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." However, the amazing depth and range of Yip's talent is well worth exploring for any art lover.
After winning that history-making Academy Award for best costume design in 2000 for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," Yip has moved on and continues to expand his range as an artist. As multi-talented artist, Yip is at once a prose writer, fiction writer (with at least four books of fiction published under his credit so far), a fashion/costume designer, set designer, painter and art director.
However, it's Yip's art design for mega-production movies by world-class director such as Ang Lee that put him under the international spotlight. Never one to rest on his laurels, Yip will be bringing us yet another work of master caliber this year. It's none other than the upcoming kungfu epic "The Promise" by China master Chen Kaige of "Farewell, My Concubine" fame. This time though, Yip gets to design the costumes, the sets and the overall art direction. "The Promise," yet another unprecedented collaboration between two artistic giants, will be released toward the end of 2005 and already claims the title of "the event Chinese movie of the year."
During his trip to Taipei to supervise the art design for "The Tempest" - a Chinese Peking opera adaptation of Shakespeare's play directed by Hong Kong master Tsui Hark with design by Tim Yip and Taiwan's premier actor Wu Hsing-kuo as the lead - I sat down with Yip to discuss his journey as an art designer in the film industry.
For an artist of his caliber, Yip has virtually collaborated with almost every major Chinese director in his career. The list of Yip's collaborators reads like a "Who's Who" of Chinese cinema's almanac. During this interview, Yip candidly shares his thoughts with me about his experience with this long list of Chinese master directors.
Yip's collaboration with Hong Kong kungfu master Tsui Hark started with the modern gangster classic "A Better Tomorrow" starring Chow Yen-Fat, Leslie Chow and Ti Long. This collaboration came about totally by accident. Tsui saw an award-winning painting by Yip in a contest and decided to hire Yip to be the managing art director for "A Better Tomorrow."
"That was my debut work in a movie. Tsui is very easy-going in person and has always been very nice to me. We became good friends over the years," says Yip. "Tsui is someone who is full of energy, full of ideas. He moves around, makes his decisions and executes his plans as fast as his fast-rolling thoughts."
Tsui and Yip's next collaboration came two decades later with the 2004 world premier of "The Tempest" musical adaptation in Taipei. Tsui arrived in Taipei only two weeks before the show's opening. "It's crazy and exhilarating at the same time," says Yip. "He puts his ideas into the production and transformed the show within two weeks. He is the only one who could pull off a stunt like that - he's a genius."
Despite the grand entrance with Tsui's "A Better Tomorrow," Yip is at heart an artist who is devoted to his religion of pure high art and is averse to the derivative nature of Hong Kong's commercial filmmaking. Yip's collaboration with Hong Kong auteur Stanley Kwan's beautiful yet haunting ghost fable 1987 "The Rouge" ignited Yip's passion again in cinema. Here, he got to do what he wanted - designing beautiful, cutting-edge costumes for a movie.
Actor Leslie Cheung has long been worshipped for his near-perfect handsomeness and it was not a challenge to design costumes that would make him an opium-smoking, flirtatious playboy in the early republic era. However, transforming the unconventional pop diva Anita Mui into a ravishing courtesan who won the love of Cheung's affluent playboy was definitely a challenge.
Yip designed a sophisticated 30's Shanghai lady look complete with wavy combed hair, sensual red lips and sumptuous cheongsams (qipaos) that transformed the modern diva into a 30's Shanghai beauty with a scent of sadness. Yip's design enabled Mui to be considered a "beauty" for the first time in the audiences' eyes. This retro look was so successful that Mui kept going back to revisit this image in her later movies such as the 1990 historical epic "The Last Princess of Manchuria" and the 1991 early republic romance classic "Au Remoir, Mon Amour" with Tony Leung Ka Fai of the French movie "Lover" fame.
"Stanley is very easy to communicate with," Yip says. "He is able to accept good ideas readily. Stanley is a so-called 'women's director.' Because he possesses such a sensitive mind, he is able to delve into the female psyche and direct movies about legendary females such as 'The Rouge,' Full Moon in New York' (with Maggie Cheung) and 'The Actress' (which won Cheung a best actress award at Berlin Festival)."
Yip and Asian American director Wayne Wang of the "Joy Luck Club" fame collaborate on Wang's early movie "Eat a Bowl of Tea" in 1989. The movie stars Russell Wong ("The Joy Luck Club") as an Asian American young man who goes to China to look a suitable bride to bring back to America.
"Eat a Bowl of Tea' is a low-budget work in the beginning of Wang's career. But during that era, the cost of shooting in China was very cheap and therefore the visual feel of the movie has a very high quality feel," says Yip, who designed the costume and set for this early Wang gem. "Wang is a very nice person. Even though he belongs to the early era of Chinese immigrants in America, he is not pigeonholed as an 'Asian' director. Wang is an intellectual. He does Chinese immigrant movies like 'The Joy Luck Club.' However, he is also able to pull off totally American movies such as the 1995 film 'Smoke' starring Harvey Keitel and William Hurt and the 1999 movie 'Anywhere but Here' starring Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman."
Yip collaborated with Law on the costume drama 1993 "Tempting Monk" starring Joan Chen and Wu Hsing-kuo. The movie is adapted from a very short novella by Hong Kong author Li Pi Hwa. The story is about the general (Wu) who falls in love with the princess (Chen) on the first sight. However, because of a rebellion plan in the court, the two have to elope in order to escape the possible sad end. The couple enjoys a romantic period during their escape until the princess is unfortunately killed by the imperial agents. Heart-broken, the general goes up to a remote mountain and becomes a monk. However, a ravishing beauty who looks exactly like the princess suddenly appears at the mountain and plays havoc with the monk's feelings. Is she the princess miraculously resurrected, a twin or a look-alike? It turns out that this woman is a look-alike imperial assassin sent by the court to kill him.
Yip's design for this movie is beautiful, and shockingly avant-garde. Long before China master Zhang Yimou used the four-color scheme to divide the four different version of reality for the Kungfu epic "Hero," Yip and Law used a red-and-blue two-color scheme to separate the movie's two parts.
The first half is mostly composed of Joan Chen's red gowns, red makeup and a banquet full of frolicking blushing faces and elaborate festive balls of red tones. The second half is even more daring than the first half. Both Chen and Wu shaved their heads and put on blue-toned makeup with blue lips. The monk and the nun who teases and then tries to kill him roam against the backdrop of blue-grey mountain and temples. The design of "Tempting Monk" is astoundingly beautiful, brow-raising and way ahead of it's time even by today's standard.
Asked about if Law and Yip had considered that the avant-garde, highbrow design of "Tempting Monk" might scare away the audiences and made it a box office bomb, Yip laughs, "Of course we thought about that possibility."
"However, both Law and I have that artistic bravado to go for what we want. We knew the risks but decided to go for it," says Yip. "This movie would not have been made if we were afraid of failure. Law is what I considered a so-called 勖ale' director. She is arrogant, opinionated, highly educated, aggressive, proud and daring - and these are compliments to her."
Yip's most successful work was his team-up with Ang Lee in the year 2000's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." This masterpiece created a new genre called kungfu-plus-drama. It overcame American audiences' dislike for reading subtitles, broke box-office records everywhere, and made cinematic history by becoming the first Chinese movie to win four Oscars. Yip himself won an Oscar for best costume design.
Yip's simple-lined chivalrous swordsman dress for Chow Yun Fat, the earthy but elaborately embroidered swordswoman dresses for Michelle Yeow, the lavish gowns and simple dresses for Zhang Ziyi, and the ethnic, strong-colored dress with rough fabric for Chang Chen have by now become symbolic of the colors and atmosphere of "Chineseness" for the western audience. Yip is currently in discussion with Lee about teaming up again for another movie.
"Lee is the director who is most easy to communicate with. He is a gentleman and an intellectual," says Yip. "He loves creative challenges and will work for years to achieve his result. It's a dream working with him."
Taiwan's internationally acclaimed art-house master Tsai Ming-liang is known and celebrated for his dark, minimalistic, existential pieces such as the 1994 Venice-winning "Vive L'Amour," the 1997 Berlin-winning "The River," the 1998 Cannes-winning "The Hole," and the 2003 Venice-winning "Goodbye, Dragon Inn."
Tsai's movies are usually moody pieces that contemplate on the emptiness and dejection of modern life. Tsai's style is apparent the opposite of Yip's trademark lavish beauty. How did these two end up working together on the movie 2001 movie "What Time Is It Over There?" The movie is centers on the disoriented youth Kang who becomes afraid of darkness after his father dies. Making a living as a cheap knock-off watch vender on a overpass in Taipei, Kang sells his own watch to a girl who left to Paris the next day. Kang starts missing that girl on the other side of the earth while his mother starts to believe that their dilapidated apartment is haunted by the ghost of Kang's father.
"We were personal friends before we worked together. I think the reason I designed for his movie is because we are kindred spirits," says Yip. "We are both very introspective, shy, reserved, and with a lot of ideas spinning around in our own minds."
Yip and China's internationally acclaimed master Zhang Yimou of "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers" fame collaborated on the eight-minute trailer for the 2008 Olympics commissioned by Beijing government.
Zhang claims that he aimed to show the distinctive aura of Chinese culture by using motifs from Tang Dynasty and the color gold. No stranger to tackling east-meet-west production, Zhang has directed Pucci's classic opera "Turandot" in Italy and then in Beijing, both receiving high acclaims. Yip, with his name almost becoming synonymous with "Chinese glory" since his Oscar win for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," undoubtedly delivered his splendid designs yet again.
The coupling of these two artistic giants seemed destined to become another landmark. However, something inexplicable happened and things turned awry.
"I still don't know what happened exactly. I handed the designs to them," Yip explains. "However, the effect I expected did not come through in the finished product. After that commercial was aired, the audiences dissed it."
"The good thing that came out of it is the friendship between me and Yimou. We became friends. Yimou is known for his authority and austerity in front of his actors and crews," says Yip. "However, when he is working with someone whom he trusts can deliver the product, he lightens up and is very relaxed. I was very surprised to see that side of him," says Yip. "Zhang Yimou! He is constantly joking and laughing in front of me. Yimou! He is so full of energy."
Yip's latest work is a collaboration with China's Chen Kaige of the "Farewell, My Concubine" fame. This mega-budget movie entitled "The Promise" or "Wu Ji" in Chinese, is Chen's first attempt in the kungfu genre. It's clearly the latest chapter of the Chinese-master-meets-kungfu crave after Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," and Zhang Yimou's back-to-back "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers."
However, despite the unavoidable action sequences, "The Promise" leans less toward kungfu and more toward fantasy. It has been described as the Chinese version of Peter Jackson's acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It took six months for Chen to finish the shooting. However, because of the amount of special effects needed for the movie is extensive, the post-production period will be longer than the shooting. "The Promise" is slated to be released at the end of 2005.
In this production, Yip is responsible for the art direction, costume and makeup design, and set design. In other words, whatever you see on the screen is designed by Yip.
"The story of "The Promise' is very supernatural," says Yip. "I decided to go with the avant-garde, daring color scheme as used in Clara Law's "Tempting Monk'."
The cast of "The Promise" includes Hong Kong star Cecilia Chang (Tsui Hark's "Legend of the Zu"), Hong Kong star Nicolas Tse (Jackie Chan's "New Police Story"), Japanese superstar Hiroyuki Sanada (of Tom Cruise's "The Last Samurai") and Korean star Jang Don-Jan (star of "Taegukie," the all-time box office champion in Korea).
Cecilia Chang's main color tone is yellow, Nicolas Tse's main color is black while Jang and Sanada both use brown as their characters' color.
"Director Chen Kaige is a very talented, intelligent, arrogant and a no-nonsense kind of person. I had a rough time communicating with him during the first few weeks," Yip says. "After that, we got over the bumps and get to understand each other. We worked together to try to produce the best possible work we could do."
"The Promise' will be a movie that truly pushes the envelope of Chinese filmmaking again," says Yip. "I am proud to be part of it and look forward to seeing the result."