In praise of the Borsalino: Ip Man’s hat in ‘The Grandmaster’

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

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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

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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.

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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.

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