Oscars: The Surprise Behind the Costume Designer Nominees

Grand Master ZIYI ZHANG - H 2014
The Weinstein Company

Grand Master ZIYI ZHANG - H 2014

Thursday morning's Oscars announcement included one unexpected name: "The Grandmaster" designer William Chang Suk Ping.

There’s a surprising name on the list of Oscar-nominated costume designers released Jan. 16. That name is William Chang Suk Ping, who is a longtime collaborator (editor, costumes and makeup) with Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. Ping snuck in under the radar for his work on Wai’s latest film, The Grandmaster, an epic action feature spanning 40 decades, inspired by the life and times of kung fu legend Ip Man.

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Everyone else on the list of Oscar nominees was pretty much expected: Michael Wilkinson’s sleek sensual ’70s chic in American Hustle was a no-brainer. Former Oscar winner (Moulin Rouge) Catherine Martin’s flapper fashion in The Great Gatsby was on everyone's list. Oscar winner (The Duchess) and nominee (Jane Eyre)  Michael O’Connor’s elaborate period-perfect Dickensian duds in Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman were considered worthy by all Oscar watchers. And the odds for an emotional favorite were with five-time Oscar nominee (including Days of Heaven, The Elephant Man and Victor Victoria) Patricia Norris, both for her previous nods and for her work in 12 Years a Slave, nominated for eight additional Oscars, including Best Picture.

But Chang’s costume work was on few prediction lists, even though The New York Times waxed poetic about the film as a “hypnotically beautiful dream.” The film takes place in China and spans the turbulent years from 1911 to 1951; from the birth of The Republic of China and the creation of the Martial Arts Union, to the War Lord era and the Japanese invasion and Japan’s defeat in WWII, to the Chiang Kai-shek rule and the struggle between the Communist party led by Mao Zedong.

Wall Street Journal film critic Joe Morgenstern also wrote of the film’s “seemingly endless flow of spectacular images” and raved about the cinematography and art direction. But there was no mention of the costumes, and he admitted that the film was a “lifeless snore” for non-fans or aficionados of the art and styles of kung fu.

Along with battle scenes, political intrigue and a fascinating love story, the costumes will definitely appeal to martial arts geeks, with sleek sculptural tunics, mostly in black and white, complementing the masterful portrait of a turbulent time and place. As well as looking amazing flying through (and often suspended in) the air, the classic asymmetrical robes, capes and trousers let the action be the focus. But some of the dramatic period costumes (black fur wraps and hats) on Gong Er (Ziyi Zhang) and the white fedora and zoot suit worn by Ip Man (Tony Leung) actually create the impression of 1930s-era Chinese film Dr. Zhivago, another epic love story filmed in equally dramatic locations.

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This is Chang’s first Oscar nomination, although he is renowned in the Asian film world for his triple-threat work in art direction, costume and makeup in all of Wong’s films. He’s best known for creating the look of Maggie Cheung in the director's highly praised romantic drama, In the Mood for Love.

But don’t expect this costume designer to start making Hollywood films. He’s been quoted as saying of Tinseltown: “So many people. So many horses, so many props, forget it. Too much work, and then the shoot is so far away where it’s too cold. I’m too old.”

And he’s not likely to become a brand ambassador like Mad Men’s Janie Bryant for a diamond line or to design retail fashion lines like Trish Summerville did for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. On modern style, he has sniffed: “I don’t like fashion. It’s transitory.”