Tony Leung as kung fu virtuoso Ip Man in The Grandmaster (2013)
Tony Leung as kung fu virtuoso Ip Man in The Grandmaster


Wong Kar-wai’s attention to design detail is legendary, and The Grandmaster (2013) is no exception. With regular collaborator William Chang Suk Ping, who served as costume designer, co-art director and co-editor on the movie, he conjures up a riot of exotic textures, styles and colours that evoke period and identify regional differences, as well as reflect on sartorial conventions, social change and kung fu philosophy. Nothing is insignificant, from hair to make-up and shoes. The dense layers of references take time and patience to unpick.

Part biopic, part historical drama, part martial arts movie, The Grandmaster takes Ip Man’s life as a starting point for an exploration of the social upheavals in 1930s and 1940s China that forced the Wing Chun grandmaster, played by Tony Leung, into exile in Hong Kong and destroyed his family. Along the way, it chronicles his involvement with the power struggles among the northern and southern Chinese martial arts factions and his thwarted love for Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), who is also a victorious adversary.

Zhang v Leung
Zhang Ziyi and Tony Leung face-off in The Grandmaster


The narrative is typically elliptical, ranging back and forth across decades, and sometimes the story seems to be more about the props, sets and costumes than the characters. Ip Man’s hat, for example, features prominently in the long opening fight sequence that takes place in driving rain. Tony Leung wears traditional black tunic and pants, but is singled out from his opponents by a white straw hat with black band that he somehow manages to keep on throughout the ferocious battle. Lighting, editing, framing and choreography combine to create a paean to the hat, dwelling on its shape, colour and texture from every angle as it survives battering rain and body-shattering blows. In the sequence, the hat transcends place and time and achieves the status of style icon.


The hat is a Borsalino — the Italian-made men’s chapeau immortalised by Hollywood and celebrated in the documentary Borsalino City (France/Italy 2015). I could find no photographs of the real Ip Man wearing one — it seems he rarely wore western clothes — though apparently it was common headwear for Chinese men in the 1920s and 30s. In the movie the hat functions on many levels: it brings together two myths (man and hat) to consolidate Ip Man’s reputation as a national hero. This perception is nuanced by displaying him in both Chinese and modern western dress, evoking Chinese nationality as in transition. The hat is also a witty play with sartorial conventions that draws attention to its historical incongruity and the poetic licence exploited by the filmmakers. The high crown and wide brim of the Borsalino visualises the contradiction between horizontal and vertical at the heart of kung fu described by Ip Man early in The Grandmaster. The rhyme between the hat’s design and kung fu’s stylised physical movements adds to the poetry of the fight sequence. The beautiful Borsalino also sets the tone for the movie’s preoccupation with telling stories about and through costume.

Very cool …

© Pam Cook

The documentary Borsalino City will be screened at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne on 25 February 2016 as part of their Fashion on Film event.


What’s in a hat?

There’s never been a more troublesome bonnet. D.W. Griffith’s The New York Hat (1912) is a version of the Cinderella story, scripted by Anita Loos and Frances Marion. Mary Pickford plays Mollie, who leads a cheerless life thanks to her miserly father. When her mother dies she leaves money in trust for Mollie with the Minister, played by Lionel Barrymore. Mollie falls in love with an exotic hat from New York she sees in the milliner’s window, and the Minister, remembering her mother’s dying wish, buys it for her. This innocent act sets off the gossips, and a mighty scandal ensues. The Minister eventually produces a letter from Mollie’s mother explaining all, order is restored, and the Minister proposes to Mollie.

Mary Pickford’s acting in the film is a masterclass in the intimate performance style developed by Griffith at Biograph. She conveys a wide range of emotions from joy and wonder to ecstasy, despair and distress through small gestures and subtle body language as well as facial expressions. Her ‘bits of business’ with hat, gloves and kerchief are brilliantly executed. Her acting style is a modified version of the histrionic techniques favoured by silent screen actors in the period, who used conventionalised broad gestures and frozen poses to express heightened emotion. Pickford moves about in a more naturalistic manner that departs from tableau shots to create the impression of ‘real’ space. The film displays the match cutting and parallel editing that became standard in classic cinema.

The hat is a wondrous concoction, hot from the sophisticated city. In Mollie’s small town with its malicious gossips, it stirs up salacious rumours about the young girl and the Minister. Although these are resolved, the underlying theme is quite racy. The meeting of city style and small town mores creates a disastrous situation that devastates Mollie and results in the destruction of the hat by her father. (In 1927, F.W. Murnau would make Sunrise A Song of Two Humans with a similar town/country theme — though without the hat.) There’s a moral, of course, warning against the dangers of city decadence and excessive consumerism. The New York hat is pivotal: Griffith et al. use it as a narrative device, and as a means of demonstrating acting technique, highlighting the significance of screen costume in telling stories, evoking character, and producing spectacular visual display.

The video essay takes found footage from the film, cropped and re-edited with added music, visual and sound effects, to analyse the fine details of Pickford’s emotional performance. Along the way, some playful touches feature the hat itself as a central character.

© Pam Cook 2015

More …

Roberta E. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991