‘Yellow Is Forbidden’: Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Golden.
4/22/2018

Documentarian Pietra Brettkelly offers up an intimate, involving portrait of Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei.

Rihanna did it. The Barbadian pop singer sparked an off- and online frenzy when she wore a 55-pound yellow dress constructed of gold thread and fox fur on the 2015 Met Gala red carpet. Soon after all heads turned, the spotlight shifted to the gown’s creator — Chinese fashion designer Guo Pei, the subject of a compelling and stimulating new documentary by New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth). 

Born to Communist Party parents in 1967, Guo grew up during the Cultural Revolution and came of age in its aftermath as Maoism was dismantled. Her rise in the fashion world coincided with China’s ascendance as a global power, a fact not lost on Brettkelly who, with her ace cinematographer Jacob Bryant, revels in the colorful pageantry of Guo’s profession while allowing in plenty of subtle disturbances.

The film primarily focuses on Guo’s preparations for her Spring 2017 show at the La Conciergerie in Paris. This was the former prison where Marie Antoinette was held prior to her trial and execution, and one of Guo’s dictates is that each dress in the collection must be analogous to the final glamorous statement of a condemned monarch. Yellow Is Forbidden is informed by this perverse, perpetual sense of standing on a precipice — facing the end, or perhaps forcing it, and always in full regalia. Death may be the only certainty, but at least you can look fabulous as it comes for you.

Guo’s cheery demeanor belies the stress she’s under. She’s not only one of the first in her country to make strides in a previously forbidden profession. She’s also very close to becoming one of the few female guest members of the male-dominated Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, the governing body of the French fashion industry. For this reason, and surely much more, it’s understandable that she greets the news that she’ll be sitting at a table alongside Donald Trump at the 2016 Time 100 Gala (the magazine named her one of that year’s most influential people) with a shoulder-shrugging giggle. Bigger fish to fry than him. 

At several points, Guo attempts to downplay any fealty to the Chinese government, insisting that her heart is above all in her work, and that the dresses she sells to wealthy, ruling-class clientele in her home country are merely means to an end. Haute couture is where Guo’s heart is, though Brettkelly occasionally complicates the vision of a woman standing alone against patriarchal and other censorious forces by contrasting the relative glamour of her subject’s life (wined and dined at a sprawling French estate, for example) with the routine tedium endured by the workers who hand-stitch every one of her creations over the course of many months. That Rihanna dress, for one, took nearly two years to complete.

All this is hardly surprising: There’s the face of collaborative art and there’s the labor that goes into it. But it is interesting how Brettkelly finds just the right sweet spot between pie-eyed flattery and sober appraisal of Guo and her methods. She’s a figure to be admired yet also reflected on. And for as much as the climactic fashion show is a jaw-dropper (one dress is so heavy that the model wearing it seems to be taking each step in a tensed-up narcotic trance), it’s impressive how Brettkelly leaves you pondering some of the curious if not troubling things that lie beneath all the pomp and circumstance.  

Production companies: Libertine Pictures, Avrotros & SVT, New Zealand Film Commission
Director-screenwriter: Pietra Brettkelly
Cast: Guo Pei, Philip Treacy, Wendi Murdoch, Godfrey Deeny
Cinematographer: Jacob Bryant
Composer: Tom Third
Producers: Pietra Brettkelly, Richard Fletcher, Naomi Wallwork
Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Margot Francis
Co-producers: Richard Fletcher, Naomi Wallwork
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Documentary Competition)

94 minutes