Watched: Cruella

A wicked tale of a baroness and a badass, played by two Emmas. The origin story of the 101 Dalmatians’ not-quite-a-supervillian nemesis and the fashion she dons are, cruelly, one big yawn

Cruella: fully transformed

In writing this post, we find ourselves with a reminder: Cruella is a Disney movie, a fantasy. It is made for kids (or those who identify as one), based on a book for children, published in 1956. It can’t go dark. And it’s never going to be sufficiently authentic to appeal to adults. This is a story of a woman (and to an extent, another) who is not really vilified (at least not in her professional capacity), but misunderstood. As a villainess-in-the-making, she is only detested by one nemesis. And, Cruella could never be that evil, even when she eventually adopted the name de Vil; she has to have a vestige of humanity. So Disney does a backstory, set in the ’70s, to show that innate quality in her, delineated to suit a feminist and woke world. It’s surprising that Maria Grazia Chiuri was not asked to design the costumes. As a film with fashion (would be a stretch to call it a “fashion film”, as some influencers have), Cruella is for fashion neophytes and for fashion-starved times. Or, for watching in the cinema where loungewear rules. It feeds the general belief that the fashion world is buoyed by bitchy designers who can’t deal with competition, and that the big names do not really do any designing (and can’t recognise their designs even if they see one up close); they leave the task to the lesser, long-suffering minions in their staff. And that in order for fashion to be Fashion, it has to be over the top or, as Cruella well knows, your attention won’t be grabbed.

We live in a period when everything happens for a reason and every person has a reason for their un-personable self. People are not by nature rude, unkind, or vicious: they had been traumatised in the past or are presently afflicted with mental health issues. Cruella, like The Joker, has an origin story, but unlike how Batman’s adversary became the madman that he was, the fashion star/antihero’s rise to animal cruelty (as recounted in the original story, anyway) requires complexity added to an otherwise one-dimensional character (even when played by Glenn Close as the villainess in middle age). You did feel pity for He with the Perpetual Smile, but you do not for She with the Pretend Scowl. Consumed by a burning vengefulness that a wuxia underdog of imperial China would relate to, Cruella allows competition and unsettled score to form her cruelty. But she is not depraved enough to make the revenge come to a life-for-a-life showdown. In fact, Cruella does not live up to her wickedly clever name, and Emma Stone as the titular character, with reportedly 47 costumes worn (a veritable collection for small labels), is just hamming it up. What really got to us while watching her was that we were clearly witnessing—again—an American actress speaking British English. But British English isn’t just an accent, it is also how the mouth moves, as well as the facial expression that goes with the verbal. To make Emma Stone sound even worse, they had to pitch her against Emma Thompson! Or is this tale really Mia Dolan’s (La La Land) secret fantasy?

The young Cruella, or Estella, as the improbable fashion-designer-in-waiting

The Baroness (von Hellman), played by Ms Thompson, has been compared to Miranda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada). Both women have a total disdain for the inept and the incompetent, but the Baroness, who’s also a litterer, among her many sins, is decidedly more of a murderess than the latter. As we have often said here, how well people dress—or how fashionably—is no indication of their goodness, kindness, sanity, and respect of social discipline. The Baroness, Estelle, and her implacable dark side use fashion as weapons of dominance and indomitability. Fashionableness can conceal revenge and rage just as it can hide the flaws of the fashion industry—egomania, for one. The echelons of power and the determiners of what is fashionable must not be challenged, only to be feared (not to be mistaken for respected). Even Estella, who is depicted as a better designer than the Baroness, does not go against the later or openly express her disapproval. She had to secretly design in an alley, while pitifully lunching on an apple. Only as the disguised anti-autocrat does she display verve and daring, and a proclivity to dress outrageously to spite the woman she abhors.

Cruella is frame after frame of outfits designed to impress. The fashion press describes Cruella’s costumes as “scene-stealing frocks”, but often times, the cameras don’t dwell on them long enough for the dresses to steal anything, let alone our attention. In Cruella’s first outing as the novice baddie, the Baroness red ‘Flame’ dress (“1965 collection”!) that she wore to draw her target’s necessary attention (apparently inspired by the 1955 Charles James ‘Tree’ dress) barely receives a full shot so that we can appreciate its asymmetric intricacy. Even Estella, not as her enraged fashionista alter ego, did not look particularly ’70s or “the Decade Taste Forgot”, only what Tom Wolfe called the “Me decade”. Her sartorial sensibility and her design approach are decidedly post-’70s. (Concurrently screening, The Conjuring is set in the ’70s and the costumes show it.) In the scene where she bought the Baroness lunch for the first time, Estella wore a draped, asymmetric skirt with criss-cross straps and hardware that immediately brought to mind Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga pants for spring/summer 2022. Two names cited that provided inspiration for the costumes are Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano (the Dior years). Costumer designer Jenny Beavan (A Room with A ViewMad Max: Fury Road) reportedly wanted to pay tribute to British designers of the late ’80s and the ’90s. If they really wanted to salute these British fashion greats, why did they not use either of the two, both of whom are still very much alive and practising? If they needed corsetry and bag-lady glam, why did they not go to the originals? Ms Beaven is not, to use the Baroness’s favourite word, an “incompetent” costumer, but she did not truly wow with what post-war fashion and 21st century audience have not already seen.

Still Estella, the rookie designer

The Baroness in her “fabulous” but dated gowns

Two massive, unwieldy-to-any-villain dresses stood out: a spread-like-a-tent, red and black ruffled number (reportedly 393 meters of organza. With a wide-width fabric, you need about 2 metres to make a dress), worn atop an automobile and the other that came tumbling out of a refuse collection vehicle (what is it about vehicles that lend themselves to Cruella’s dressed-for-revenge drama?). The first, which has a scroll that could be unfurled to reveal the odd, social-media-era (hashtagged?) “PAST”, has been attributed to, among other names, Alexander McQueen. It looks to us something Viktor & Rolf had attempted, even Michael Cinco! The second a corseted top on which supposed newspaper clippings and discarded scraps of fabric (or garments) are stitched on could be homage to John Galliano’s controversial 2000 ‘Homeless’ couture collection for Dior. At that time, the clothes trained the spotlight on a group of people that did not, for a moment, asked for it. Cut to 2021, Cruella’s version no longer provokes anything, even when it emerges from a garbage truck and exited the dramatic unveiling, with with a train that could have been a spill from a homeless person’s bundle. How times have changed!

Estella is a street urchin in the tradition of Oliver Twist’s nemesis Fagin and his young bunch. Like Fagin, she needs to survive—to be in the “business”: pick-pocketing. Even her pet dog (and her wallet-snatching pals’) are trained to be accomplices. But unlike Fagin, Estella is far much better-dressed. She has set up a sewing facility in her lair, and, therefore could design her and her sidekicks’ “fabulous disguises” for their outward-bound enterprise. Estella is never seen actually designing, she only sketches. She is not shown learning to sew in her younger days, or at all, and yet sew she does; she could even stitch together a fitted leather jacket with sleeves in ketupat weave and another with embossed leather. All with a single sewing machine. We do not see her draft a single pattern or cut a piece of cloth, yet we are supposed to believe that she can make, for starters, those work clothes—mostly in black—with rather post-modern details, and un-contemporaneous technical treatments, such as the anomalous placement of seams, or fashion lapels as accessory. Her home-sewing set-up, although later overseen by Artie (her fashion soulmate from one 2nd Time Around store in Portobello) and modestly staffed, can amazingly turn out those gowns that are more fabulous than anything the expansive studio of the Baroness can produce. According to director Craig Gillespie, the Baroness’s atelier is based on archival pictures of Dior’s early Paris workroom, but looks assembled by the set decorators of Lego Masters.

Cruella does punk

Cruella does ‘trash’

And suddenly “Cruella is a new fashion darling”. She has no shop, isn’t supplying to the storied London department store Liberty (where the Baroness’s creations are available and where Estella was a former staffer), and no apparent customers, yet she is an immediate threat to the established and way-wealthier Baroness. The rivalry between the women also underscores the generational divide: the Baroness from the old couture world of rigidity and the constructional possibilities of the tailleur, still seeking her “signature look”, and Cruella from the more seductive art of the flou, as well as a society influenced by punk (never shown, except for a rock concert that served as a fashion show), hell-bent on revenge. As it turns out, Cruella is not only a fashion designer, she’s also a meticulous intrusion and burglary planner, a persuasive recruiter of talent, and a pugilist-fighter, admitting that “wrecking havoc at galas is my personal specialty”. To all that, add a guerilla “revenge” fashion show organiser! Even Wonder Woman isn’t that talented. Diana Prince, when not crime-busting or saving General Steve Trevor, is, at first, an army nurse before becoming an intelligence officer. She has, of course, other occupations, but they don’t show such amazingly varied flair. Even Cruella’s bad and dangerous driving is a talent.

Cruella tries to explain the protagonist’s wickedness, but not why and how the Baroness became a sociopath. The film is seamed together to reflect the current sentiment for young women: you can do anything. Both Cruella and Estella will inspire little girts to dream big. And for dreaming designers to believe that there are short cuts to success, even for a grifter. And the best approach to extolling or embracing fashion, whether a creator or consumer, is to resolutely go beyond the normal. As 2nd Time Around’s Artie said, “Normal is the cruellest insult of all”. Admittedly, we had expectations for Cruella. If we had played that down and not be bothered by the incongruence of the fashion and the revenge as their own stories, perhaps we could have enjoyed the film, even the gowns. But, as the Baroness said, when meeting Cruella for the first time, “nothing to see here”.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Cruella is in cinemas now. Photos: Disney+

Camp Campuran

The rojak Singaporean “musical” comedy Number 1 was blessed with the Best Costume and Make-up Award at the Golden Horse Award two days ago. Was it a fluke?

It was not surprising that Mark Lee (李国煌) did not win the award for the best actor at the 57th Golden Horse Award (金马奖), but it took us by surprise that the film Number 1, in which Mr Lee has a leading role, received the Best Makeup and Costume Design award, which went—jointly—to the Malaysian stylist Guo Zisheng (郭子胜) and Singaporean designer Azni Samdin. That the costumes of Number 1 could beat the other nominees—the macabre ballroom-dancing film A Leg (腿), the Hong Kong bromance drama-thriller Hand Rolled Cigarette (手捲煙), the supernatural horror The Rope Curse 2 (粽邪), and, especially, the impeccably stylish thriller Precious is the Night (今宵多珍重)—stumped us.

Precious is the Night is a part-Singaporean production and it has locals in it too. It stars model-turned-photographer-turned-social-media-sensation-turn-actor Tan Chuando (陈川都), with costumes by the producer, Lim Sau Hoong (林少芬), a reputed Singaporean advertising maestro and a nominee of the President’s Design Award 2007. Fellow ad man Theseus Chan described Ms Lim as “a combination of her innate artistry, her gift for grace and her unique ethos”. Any film with elegant cheongsums, to us, has a clear lead in the best costume stakes. Precious is the Night is evocative in parts of Wong Kar Wai’s (王家卫) In the Mood for Love (花样年华, 2000) and co-directors Chen Kuo-Fu’s (陈国冨) and Gao Qunshu’s (高群书) The Message (风声, 2009). Its costumes (even with Mr Tan half naked or in singlets) are stylish and cinematically so.

Yet, it was the high-camp, high-jinx Number 1 that took home the award for Best Makeup and Costume Design. This is not turning up our noses at a Mark Lee vehicle, which, hitherto, has mostly been a platform for the brew of balderdash that Mr Lee and his “mentor” Jack Neo have made a career out of. A heterosexual man in real life doing drag is hardly the stuff of award seasons these days. (Why is it that so many actors from the Jack Neo school of comedy must have a drag act in their repertoire before they can be taken seriously as an actor?) Mr Lee’s acting has never been a stretch of any sort—of his ability and his willingness, or our imagination. His character, beneath the unnecessarily gaudy makeup, is a composite of what he has done—and not undone—in the past. We see the desperate contractor Ong in Money No Enough (钱不够用, 1998), the hardened Ah Beng in Liang Po Po: The Movie (梁婆婆重出江湖, 1999), the hapless father in I Not Stupid (小孩不笨, 2002), and even the soft-hearted ‘thief’ Lee Tok Kong in the English-language TV series Police and Thief (2004, 2005, 2006, 2008). Thankfully Mark Lee’s singing is a tad better—less one-note. But no matter how many Ah Bengs—even one with a degree in civil engineering as in Number 1—he plays, he will always be Mark Lee the Ah Beng.

Similarly, Number 1 is an amalgamation of movies, including, rather obviously, the heart-wrenching Taiwanese film Alifu: The Prince/ss (阿莉芙, 2017, and screened during the Chinese Film Festival in 2018) and the uplifting Canadian movie Stage Mother (2020). We saw in Number 1, as we did in both latter films, the all-too-queenly foibles, the clash of the straight and gay worlds, and the as many prejudices experienced as there are love. But Number 1, with its superficial story-telling, is essentially for the Ah Boys to Men (新兵正传) crowd, one that does not require emotional depth in cinematic story-telling. At times, it feels like a Singaporean movie trying to be a Taiwanese indie film trying to be a Singaporean dramedy. Subtlety has no place in this world of song and dance. Feathers and fake lashes are there to overshadow even a hint of tears—whether sorrow or joy. No voiceless pauses on the minutiae of drag life, just full-frontal bapok excess. It takes advantage of drag culture that has gone mainstream without exploring its layered-as-the-makeup complexity and parades the film’s protagonists to a mainstream audience like kueh kueh at a void deck function.

This is not a gang of misfits, as one might think of a group of drag queens (they do not, of course, have to be). Rather this is a gaggle of stock characters that do their thing, not spectacularly, in a nightclub with patrons of indeterminate sexual persuasion (just as the now-defunct drag central Boom Boom Room was never really a gay club per se?). They are over-the-top, even off-stage, refusing to remove their makeup for supper at a kopi tiam because cosmetics are expensive and it it takes too much effort to put them on in the first place. Even the token appearance of Kumar—oftentimes cutting and perceptive in his own stand-ups—could not save the film from its bland gila-gila posturing. And what semblance of poignancy was dashed when Mark Lee’s final outburst of emotions—none of the heart-tugging of the deeply touching eulogy in the final scenes of Alifu—was oddly cut shot with his angry wife going into labour so that a bunch of outrageously dressed queens can send her, practically on foot and against all traffic odds, from somewhere in Chinatown to Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital. We are reminded till the end that Number 1 rides on slapstick, not clever digs.

And there is the costume. Azni Samdin is by no means an unknown designer although not many know him as his work is mostly in bridal wear for Malay weddings and in outfitting stars of Suria, such as his multi-hyphenate buddy Najib Ali, who not only dons Mr Samdin’s designs on television, but also for special occasions such as Hari Raya. Mr Samdin has also found fans in actress-presenter Huda Ali (no relation to Najib Ali) and Code of Law’s Fauzie Laily. Mr Samdin, who too dabbles in hair and makeup, counts himself as a stylist as well, and has worked on Suria shows such as Anugerah (Where Stars are Born) and regularly appeared in the Stailista segment of the Malay lifestyle and entertainment news program Manja. Mr Samdin has, in fact, had a long history in television, describing himself as an “Award Winning TV Producer/Director/Stylist turned Designer M Azni Samdin New (sic).” In fact, in 2007, he won a best director award at Pesta Perdana of that year, together with his mentor Mr Ali. His work in drag costumes reportedly goes back to the ’90s, when he assisted in the backstage of the Boom Boom Room, where a young Kumar had his break. According to Berita Harian, Mr Samdin “antara lain, beliau pernah menjadi penata gaya bintang Hong Kong, Sandy Lam (among other roles, was the stylist of stylish Hong Kong star, Sandy Lam).” Other stars who have been dressed by Mr Samdin include Tanya Chua and Dick Lee, as reported by Lianhe Zaobao (联合早报).

The Golden Horse awardee Azni Samdin. Photo: Azni Samdin/Facebook

His designs capture the exuberance of what Malay brides like in their baju nikah and baju sanding (different styles worn for the wedding ceremony throughout the day), and increasingly the grooms: lavishness. Key features of Mr Samdin’s bridal baju (which he gleefully spells as “bajoo” in his social media posts) are extraneous fichu attachments (on top of which are all the embellishments you can imagine), fishtail skirts, and peplums, some times layered, that he loves so much, he calls the application “peplumnisation”. For the men, he has a sort-of-bolero for them on top of an outer for the baju melayu, and by Facebook posts alone, appears to be extremely popular. Also a jewellery designer (some of the chunky necklaces used in the movie could have come directly from his studio), Mr Samdin, like Francis Cheong and Frederick Lee, uses social media really well, and, similar to the other two, likes extolling the pleasures of long hours with the needle. One “hi-neck (sic) embellishment,” he wrote, “took 2 nights” to complete. Or how “beadworks (sic) on sleeves end (sic)” was the result of “4 nights of sewing therapy”. Of a wedding dress, he exclaimed, “5 days leh work on the bajoo finishings and embellishings (sic)”. And he is an enthusiastic peddler, too. In one post of a jacket, he asked, “Nice rigggghhhhhtttt? You want one…?” Another, with a photo of Najib Ali in a Hari Raya baju, he tempted, “You want? You want? You want? Kau nak? Nak? Nak?”

It’s this fervent kampung spirit that Mr Samdin brings to the characters of Number 1. Sometimes it felt like we were watching an imaginary opening act for, say, a P. Ramlee concert. Only the act wasn’t doing the joget in the film. The Queens Braaa…derhood, as the performers gleefully call themselves, were lip-synching to clichéd and predictable gay anthems such as Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive (including a crude Hokkien version) and Zhang Huimei’s (张惠妹) Sisters (姐妹), Asian LGTBQ fave. Mr Samdin’s love of bejeweled colours and metallic shimmer (as seen in the Malay brocade songket) is exuberantly transferred onto the screen, but unlike what he actually does for a bride, these stage costumes looked like they were bought off the stalls in Pratunam market in Bangkok, where, as a matter of fact, many struggling Thai drag artists source their elaborate performance wear.

As the costumes often did not appear to fit, it is tempting to assume that Mr Samdin served as a costumer, rather than a designer. One fashion stylist suggested to us that it is possible the movie suffered from a lack of adequate funds for the costumes. As such, not everything can be custom-made. Or, as the maxim of Azni Samdin Bridalwear Designs goes, “first to wear and for you to keep”. There was nothing in the costume for us to keep, in our mind. Sure, we were not expecting Oscar winner for best costume, Priscilla Queen of the Desert (costumed by the talented duo of Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner) or the 1978 version of La Cage aux Folles (where it is “a mad extravaganza”), whose Italian costume designer Ambra Danon won the Oscar for the film, but neither did we expect something less spectacular than Roystan Tan’s 2007 getai homage 811, in which the Papaya Sisters held their own in goofy costumes. Nothing is sadder than doing a drag show on a budget.

The “style” of the film is supposedly a reflection of a more local sensibility to better match Mark Lee’s Bengness so that even the Taiwanese can understand. Yet, the hair and makeup are not quite a reflection of the local or Asian drag aesthetic. Using Bangkok (where there is a vibrant drag entertainment industry) as reference again, the costumes of Number 1 are more Bangkok’s Patpong than Pattaya’s Tiffany, where beauty is paramount and where the annual Miss Tiffany’s Universe—the world’s first international drag pageant—is staged. The exaggerated makeup (inverted U shape for brows!) and massive hair, festooned with all manner of accessories and not, take after the over-the-top drag looks of the West: post-Divine, Lady Bunny-fabulous, Wigstock-ready, or a page off the collective visuals of RuPaul’s Drag Race (but definitely not the FX series Pose). The costumes, therefore, sometimes feel like they’re second fiddle to what’s happening from the neck up. An incomplete picture—unfortunately, just like the film.

Movie stills: mm2 Entertainment

Watched: Mulan

Disney’s live-action Mulan is not as delightful as the animated movie and not engaging as a new version. Why did they bother with blah?

Mulan in full feminine regalia during a battle. Film still: Disney Enterprises

By Ray Zhang

Barely one minute and half into the new Disney film Mulan, I was irritated. The film’s story tellers (four credited scriptwriter were involved) had decided to set the titular character’s home in a tulou (土楼) in China’s southeastern province of Fujian (福建). As far as I am aware, the story of Hua Mulan (花木兰) was set in Northern China, in the Han region, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏), also known as the era of the Tuoba Wei (拓跋魏), between 386 to 534 AD. The distinctive circular Fujian tulou—or earthen buildings—are much later vernacular homes of the Hakka people, believed to have first erected them in the 12th century. Although it has never been clearly established in ancient texts (such as the 12th century’s Ballad of Mulan or 木兰辞) where Mulan (played by China-born American Liu Yifei) was from, she was not known to be of Hakka or even Hokkien descent.

But, here in a lively compound of a tulou, is where we first encounter the girl Mulan chasing a chicken. The suggestion of rural life belied her acrobatic, pre-gongfu skills, never mind that she’s more agile than a domestic fowl. Also here, as a young woman of marriageable age, she was strangely sent to a matchmaker to learn to be, well, a woman of marriageable age, not to learn of a potential suitor. I have no idea why the matchmaker had such high standing in the community that she had to be, as Mulan and her chaperones—mother and sister—seemed, feared. What’s even more curious was how the Hua women had to be ridiculously decked out and made up, just to see the matchmaker, played by the revered Cheng Pei-Pei 郑佩佩, also in similar clown’s (小丑) makeup. It was beyond my comprehension how Ms Cheng could come this far as an actress, known for her breakthrough role as Golden Swallow (金燕子) in the 1966 King Hu (胡金铨) film Come Drink with Me (大醉侠) and the impressive Jade Fox (碧眼狐狸) in Lee An’s (李安) Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (卧虎藏龙), to be cast in such a small, silly part that our own Ang Hwee Fang (or Hong Huifang 洪慧芳) could have played with no loss to the latter’s credibility.

The Fujian tulou where Disney decided Mulan lived. Screen grab: Disney+

According to makeup designer, Denise Kum (Captain America), her research into Tang dynasty women’s “ideas of beauty” revealed that makeup was not only the unmissable hua dian (花点, decorative floral dots above the glabella), but also hideous colours such as green eyebrows. But Mulan’s conscription took place during the Northern Wei dynasty, which was some three decades before Tang. Defenders of Ms Kum’s work said that such makeup was popular among the Tang emperors’ concubines. In Disney’s telling, Mulan was the daughter of a crippled army veteran, whose family was installed in a village, where chickens were free to be chased by children. The Huas were nowhere near a royal court. How likely was it that, going to meet a matchmaker against her desire, Mulan would appear before the latter made up as a concubine? Did the meipo (媒婆), too, wished to look like a member of the Emperor’s harem?

Not only was the makeup an affront to ancient Chinese beauty traditions (so unnecessarily heavy-handed that it prompted Mulan to say “the fiercest winter storm could not destroy this makeup”, and that included green brows!), the costume design—by Bina Daigeler (recently, Hulu series Mrs America)—took ancient Chinese sartorial glamour to new heights. As a rural lass, Mulan wore clothes that could be those of the elite class: fancy. She even had an outfit set aside for matchmaking. And armour and helmut ready for battle! The rest of her village folks wore so much colour, only a Pantone chart could offer such coordinated chromatic variety. On the other end of the grandeur scale, the Emperor—unnamed, played by Jet Li—was attired in a strange mianfu (冕服 or ceremonial royal attire): dirty green cocoon shan (衫 or coat), under which the inner garment yi (衣) sported six(!) concentric crossed collars (交领) that appeared to be without the left-over-right youren (右衽) overlapping, making him look unmagestically puny, even when inexplicably bathed in a ray of golden light. Forgive the language, but WTF?

Mulan, dressed extravagantly, to meet the matchmaker. Film still: Disney Enterprises

Chinese Netizens have already pointed out that these are xifu (戏服 or costumes), not hanfu (汉服 or Han clothing). Ms Daigeler couldn’t tell the difference. Since the story largely took place in battlefields (or military camps), the cast wore battle-ready uniforms with plate armours. I am sure military historians would be able to fault what the soldiers wore, but for me, the civilian clothes were the ones that grated on my nerves. Although Ms Daigeler claimed she did “deep research” on Chinese clothing and culture, she also admitted that she did not consult any Chinese professional, relying instead on her Western “intuition”. Predictably, the costumes couldn’t escape the fantasy that a Caucasian is wont to imbue ancient Oriental garments with. There were improbabilities too. After “Hua Jun died”—in the first battle with the bird-witch Xian Lang—and “Mulan lived”, as the narration went, the protagonist shed her military armour to reveal a woman’s yi (top photo) and loosely curled hair worthy of a Dyson Airwrap ad, while riding a horse! And those wide sleeves! How were they practical to wielding swords in a battlefield? Did she, like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, have gender-affirming, fighting clothes on all along as they went to battle? Mulan might be a Chinese folk hero, but Disney forgot she is not a DC Comics superhero.

Then, there was Gong Li, probably the biggest Chinese star the Americans ever knew. I do not know why there was the necessity of a “witch” with Mutant-like, shape-shifting ability in the plot. If the imperial army would not even allow a woman into their military grounds, why would their enemy, the barbaric Rourans (柔然), even with a feared warrior-leader Bori Khan, need the histrionic help of the campy Xian Lang? Ms Li, not dressed in a hanfu, but in what could pass off as neo-Victorian bandit-goth (Snow White’s Evil Queen won’t be envious), with makeup that The Green Hornet’s Kato might have rejected, was essentially reviving her 2016 role as White Bone Demon (白骨精) in Monkey God 2 (西游记之孙悟空三打白骨精), also as shape-shifting, but speaking as Memoir of a Geisha’s Hatsumomo! Her White Bone Demon costume and “I-am-hell-(我就是地狱)” performance were way more fierce, and infinitely better.

Gong Li as a witch knows how to dress glamorously and fight stunningly. Screen grab: Disney+

Mulan is largely a war movie, yet against a setting of violent struggle, the filmmakers saw it necessary to exoticise the telling. Apart from geographical, architectural, and costume irregularities, the film throughout—shot in both China and New Zealand—clearly did not want barren northern Chinese lands to dominate. In the first part of the film, when the witch Xian Lang and the kohled baddie Bori Khan attacked a walled city, I thought I was watching a scene from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This took place somewhere on “The Silk Route, Northeastern China”, according to the film. The Silk Route (丝绸之路) was more than 11,200 kilometres long—a network of roads, stretching from Xian to the Mediterranean Sea. Placing the above scene anywhere on this land trading route, even in the northeast, is artistically lazy. To heightened the Chineseness of the set located away from the war, production designer Grant Major (King Kong) succumbed to the typical angmo idea of Orientalism. When Mulan was about to leave her family to join the army, she was placed in a romantically styled room flanked by red lanterns. Remember, we were supposed to believe she lived in essentially communal quarters. Yet, in a sad and conflicted state, Mulan, we were to be convinced, had time and inclination to light and raise lanterns before sunrise just for her to depart discreetly!

Since this was not strictly a wuxia film (or, at least not in the Louis Cha tradition), the fighting scenes were less about balletic swordplay, fancy footwork, and gravity-defying flying than brute strength, killing in large numbers, and raining of arrows. In fact, the fighting was so uninspiring that a Jacky Chan street brawl would have more going for it. The final showdown took place in an alleyway and construction site! For a reported USD200-million Disney production, the “epic” military attacks in Mulan was not more spectacular than those on less costly Chinese TV series, such as 2017’s The Glory of Tang (唐朝荣耀) or this year’s hit Under the Power (锦衣之下). As for Donnie Yen’s part of the “commanding officer” Commander Tung Yong, the Chinese have a perfect description: 大才小用 (or, making small use of big talent). I couldn’t see how else to describe Commander Tung’s uncommanding presence. Or, sudden appearance to break up a scuffle in an enlistment line (did he not have other junior officers to do that?). Or, showing off gongfu moves as demonstrations, not instructions, to teach enlistees. He sure didn’t teach the wooden Mulan; he didn’t even fight in the battle scenes. He was definitely no 战神赵子龙, god of war Zhao Zilong.

Striking battle formation, but the fighting scenes were lacklustre. Screen grab: Disney+

I found it also hard to digest a beloved Chinese folk tale with dialogue spoken in largely (but uneven) American English. The Hua family of four all spoke with different accents. At her first meeting with Commander Tung, Mulan gave herself a presumably manlier name Hua Jun (花军. It was Ping in the cartoon), which she pronounced as if she was an American on her first day at a putonghua class. Heck, she couldn’t even pronounce the name of her father Hua Zhou (花州). And then, later, threatened with expulsion, she inexplicably said, “I would rather be air-cuted (executed)”, as if there was sng buay (酸梅, preserved plums) in her mouth. While all the dialogues were in English, even the military commands and battle calls, the background soldierly talk was curiously in Mandarin. And when Commander Tung finally had the chance to call Hua Mulan by her real name, he said it in Mandarin too. In fact, the spoken sound of the movie was so oddly inconsistent, and monotonous (especially among the soldiers) that I was beginning to suspect that the film was dubbed. And by Mediacorp!

This year’s Mulan is supposed to be based on the 1998 animation—loosely, as is everything about the film. With a cartoon, you can get away with the crass, the foolish, the inaccurate, the made-up. With actual actors, believability, both cultural and narrative, drives the story. Mulan, the live action, builds on a thin, unimaginative, straightforward plotline, with a Westerner’s definition of the East’s sense of loyalty, bravery, and truth (忠勇真 respectively), as inscribed on the sword of Mulan’s father that she took along with her to fight with. It was a lot of hogwash and it was especially unconvincing when expressed by American filmmakers operating in the shadow of a White House unmoved by the loyal, the brave, and, definitely, the truth. I don’t know if Disney intended Mulan to ingratiate the company with China, now reportedly a larger movie market than the United States. If so, the film’s association with Xinjiang, as seen in the end credits, could be the world-angering ratification.

Two strong women. Only one lives. Guess who? Screen grab: Disney+

Awash with 2020 wokefulness, Mulan also showed that ancient Chinese women (or, perhaps, women in general), even after a gruelling journey through plateaus and mountains, do not smell, but men “stink” (and they snore, for they are such slobs). And Mulan only began to “smell bad” after doing non-stop night guard duty and not bathing. Odoriferous problems aside, pity, too, was necessary as in Mulan’s first night guard duty (which she volunteered to do): it poured. To be sure, Kiwi director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) made it clear from the start of the film that this would be a feminist movie. Mulan, described by her father in the cringing cliche, “a young shoot, all green, unaware of the blade”, could only fight her best, life-saving fight as a woman, not as a man (which would have been disastrous, as her regiment mates and Commander proved so). Even the witch Xian Lang was not inherently evil—she was controlled by the one-dimensional master Bori Khan. A woman is only bad when she’s under the dominance of a man! And when Xian Lang told him of Mulan now leading an army, she was quick to correct him referring to her as a mere “girl”: “a woman”, the witch insisted. And there I was, hearing Christina Aguilera singing, “who is that girl I see/staring back straight at me…”

Hua Mulan is not the only female crossdresser in Chinese folk tales and historical narratives. Women in male drag are, in fact, common in Chinese story telling, especially in wuxia tales. The two China TV series I mentioned earlier, too, have them, and, additionally, women generals. And all of them are well-educated and gongfu-skilled (文武双全, wen wu shuang quan), without the need to depend on or strengthen their ‘chi’ (气)—that metaphysical, already-exploited-in-Kung-Fu-Panda, Force-like power that Mulan possessed and initially grappled with (oh, so did Rey Skywalker). As Commander Tung explained, “The chi pervades the universe and all living things… but only the true will connect deeply with his chi and become a great warrior.” To be true, Mulan had to go back to being female. Thankfully, without the lurid, man-repeller makeup.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

Not The Wonder Years

It’s tempting to dismiss Wonder Boy as a vanity project, and many have submitted to the temptation, but Dick Lee’s debut film is homage to self, as well as a dare-to-reveal look at a surprisingly more uninhibited time

 

Kheng as LeeBenjamin Kheng as Dick Lee

By Raiment Young

Some people not only grew up to the music of Dick Lee, they had actually lived the world of Singapore’s most recognisable songster. I often hear of those whose lives have somehow crossed path with the man who dabbled in many things creative or, as it was known in Mr Lee’s heyday, “lifestyle”. There are those who had actually worked with him; there are those who had, through supplying the stuff he needed for his work, interfaced with him; and there are those who had co-conspired with him in his many schemes that had impacted the fashion, modeling, and music scenes of Singapore, not to mention, our national psyche.

Many of those that are connected to him, even loosely, have stories to tell of Dick Lee, and are curious to see if Wonder Boy contains any narrative that will match theirs. Unfortunately for them, this is not a recount of Mr Lee’s successful decades, or the unveiling of the backstory to Home. This is a filmic memoir of three of his teenage years, before and after a family tragedy, and the events leading to the release of the 1973 album Life Story, his first long-playing vinyl. This is not an account of Dick Lee the fashion impresario who created the ’80s retail experiment Hemispheres or the music lover/writer who became the Mad Chinaman in 1989. This is, disappointingly, a prosaic telling of not an untypical teenager struggling with the loneliness of wanting to break free—from parental expectations and the musical tastes of an era that weighed heavily on him.

The Wonder Boy film still 1Dick Lee’s first pop group known in the film as The Wonder Boys

This is a film with music

It is not unsurprising that you would think this movie to be a musical. But it is not. A Dick Lee film without songs is, I suppose, like fried rice without egg. So, there is more than an opening track, but the songs—mainly those from his breakout album Life Story—do not string the narrative with emotional heft or arouse feelings to let the spirit soar, as the Mamas and Papas tunes did for the 1996 British film Beautiful Thing.

Life Story is the first record Mr Lee released after being discovered while singing the song at Ready, Steady, Folk, a talent contest organised by the cable radio service Rediffusion in 1973. That the album should form the basis of the film is ironic as Mr Lee had told his Japanese audience during the Orientalism tour of 1992 that it was a “very, very, very bad, bad record—bad”. Although, to be honest, I have not heard the original press of Life Story, I do not consider the songs, while catchy, emotionally reflective enough to soundtrack an autobiographical film.

The Wonder Boy film still 2Dick Lee (seated) and sister Pat (left) perform for friends

The result is a loose pastiche of tracks that I suspect will arouse the memories of those old enough to recall them. That, however, may pose a problem: those old enough—Mr Lee’s contemporaries—are not the movie goers they once were. Those who can sing along to Fried Rice Paradise are most likely Gen Xers who remember it as title song from the eponymous musical (1991) than a track from Mr Lee’s debut LP (1974). In fact, many people did not have a TV set at that time, and were not audience to the songs that Mr Lee had performed during the Talentime series of 1973, when he appeared not as contestant, but “guest artiste”. If the songs are intended for a new generation of film fans—as I think they are, they sound terribly kitschy, with a musicality that went the way of Bugis Street.

Perhaps that explains why Home, written in 1998 when Mr Lee was in Hong Kong as regional VP of artiste and repertoire for Sony Music Asia, was inevitably sung at the end of the film, the way artistes promoting new songs tend to finish with something familiar, something that the audience can sing to. I was rather surprised that Mr Lee wrote no new material (rather, they are, according to the man himself, “music that has never been released to the public before”) or a love theme (there are love songs, but not in the tradition of, say, Where Do I Begin from 1970’s Love Story, with the specificity of the film’s story line) considering that love, in its many guises, feature strongly in the Wonder Boy.

Wonder Boy film still 3Party wear in 1972?

This is a film with fashion

The ’70s is a decade that can be easily exploited for visual shiok but Wonder Boy fell disappointingly short. Flower power was impotent, flares inconspicuously represented. It may have been “the decade taste forgot”, but the ’70s was, by many accounts—no less Mr Lee’s own—a colourful era, easy to ape for the big screen. In his autobiography, Dick Lee: The Adventures of the Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee admits to being a fashion plate from young: “started to notice clothes—how they were constructed, what colours they were in, what trends of the moment were” from age 11, and, at 13, “was the best-dressed boy in town with… a floral shirt”.

According to his description of the era, “youth culture was very adult-oriented. For example, we dressed like adults; the guys in fitted shirts with huge collars, worn with high-waisted flares, and the girls in elegant dresses and stiletto heels.” Being the truly fashion-conscious teen that he was, “a typical night out” would see him wearing his “favourite Swiss voile shirt in a green floral print, with an enormous Peter Pan collar. This would be tucked into my brown Oxford Bags, coming up to above my navel and with hems wide enough to accommodate shoe boxes”. Oddly, picking out clothes, getting dressed, and preening were not worked into the script.

Wonder Boy film still 4Indistinctive fashion of the film. The cold shoulder (second from left) is a little disconcerting

Few of those florid attire and exaggerated shapes appeared in Wonder Boy. The silhouettes were disconcertingly current. Costume designer Daniel Goh, former editor of Style magazine and an on-and-off stylist, seems remiss in his research for the film. I want to think differently, but it is not unreasonable to assume that he had picked most of the clothes from H&M and Forever 21, or such (City Plaza, a friend suggested), save, perhaps, for the lead characters. A major party scene saw attendees dressed in outfits teenagers today could see themselves wear. The tight shirts and their accompanying huge collars did not stand out; neither did flares, let alone Oxford Bags. The girls (with today’s brows!) wore printed dresses with a natural waist, but they could be any dress you will encounter in the MRT trains today.

The lack of attention to detail is especially glaring in the choice of brassiere in a seduction scene in which Julie Tan, playing a moral-dubious girl called Linda, who chain-smoked in school uniform, descended on Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee. The close-up of Ms Tan’s upper body not only revealed her not-so-ample assets, but a bra that could have been picked from Wacoal’s Une Nana Cool line, conceived in 2001 for young girls, rather than a Triumph Lycra/nylon, pre-Sloggi bra of the ’70s that reflected the youth and sexual freedom of that time. I’m sure if asked, Triumph International will gladly loan an era-correct bra from their archive or make one for Ms Tan to wear. If not, there are always the many photos of Guy Bourdin.

Detail was overlooked too in the scene when Dick Lee had a fight and then made-up with his sister Pat: he was wearing a striped, long-sleeved ringer tee, and a pair of bright blue flares with patch-pockets—the zip opened from the left! Is the fly detail to bear out the not-in-the-film fact that Mr Lee spent an inordinate amount of time fashion shopping with mom Elisabeth Lee in his pre-teen and teenage years, and “had to look as trendy as my mother”? Did he borrow her slacks?

Wonder Boy film still 5Dick Lee and his mother Elisabeth in their living room

This is a film with (foreign) locations

Much, if not most, of Wonder Boy was filmed in Penang—hardly a surprising location since Singapore of the ’70s is no longer evident, and the film’s S$1.3 million budget is not large enough to build a set that can depict 6½ Mile Bukit Timah Road, or Binjai Park to those in the know, where Dick Lee’s family home is situated, and St Joseph Institution (SJI) on Bras Basah Road, where he went to school for ‘O’ Levels.

The Lee home in the film appears to be a large house, but not as bungalow-like as those in Binjai Park are (including his cousins’—actors Lim Kay Tong and Lim Kay Siu—house), and much of the action took place in a living room that, according to Mr Lee in a behind-the-scenes publicity video, looks like the room he knew well. But the large grounds on which the house sat appeared only in a flash, and were referred to by Julie Tan’s character Linda, without the camera taking the audience there. The macramé pot hangers in the dining area, I thought, were a nice, evocative touch. The sum effect, however, was a home that could be anywhere in Singapore and the Malay Peninsular rather than the exclusive residential greenery not far from the rail corridor’s truss bridge that stretches across Bukit Timah and Dunearn Roads.

Wonder Boy film still 6Classroom scene in Penang Free School

A good deal of the retro-coloured scenes was filmed in a school setting. Mr Lee went to St Joseph Institution for his secondary education, but in the film, the school is known as St Peter’s (could it be because he did not want to further upset his alma mater with insinuation that illicit shenanigans took place in the school compound?). The school of choice for the film is the very secular Penang Free School. PFS, which celebrated their 200th anniversary last year, is the oldest English-medium school in Southeast Asia. Students are known as Frees, and these include Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore’s first chief justice Wee Chong Jin. Interestingly, Mr Lee’s great-grandfather Lee Keng Kiat, a Penangite, went to the Catholic institution, St Xavier’s, PFS’s long-time archrival.

But it was PFS rather than the younger St Xavier’s that was picked, which suggests that the colonial architecture of the PFS building came to represent SJI rather than its religious leaning. Still, SJI’s distinctive crescent-shape front was not shown since PFS has a linear façade. Those who have been to SJI before it became the Singapore Art Museum also noted that the school did not have windows and doors painted in blue, and the hall/auditorium seemed a tad small. SJI in Bras Basah may only be a part of our faded memory now, but the school and the bus stop outside it (don’t expect to see the row of book and sporting goods shops that was very much a part of that area then) in the film did not look or feel like it is in the heart of the fast-modernising Lion City.

Wonder Boy film still 7Dick Lee with Louise who persuades him not to give up

This is a film with heart

I thought it would be. I saw the film twice: in the first viewing, I was not able to establish an emotional connect with it. In the second, I found myself finding its faults. The film, in many ways, is like Dick Lee’s songs—it draws you in, but leaves you not feeling. It has the colour and the vim (interestingly, not the camp), but once you leave the cinema, it does not stay with you, not even until the bus-stop. To be fair, Dick Lee appeared to have put in his darnest best, like he did for the National Day Parade in 2015, but do you remember NDP50?

Personally, what may have worked against it is the familiarity of the story. Mr Lee is fond of recalling his child-hood days in his concerts, and Wonder Boy feels like a replay of that unabashed conceit. Like those stage performances, the film is short of subtlety and shade—nuances not exactly Mr Lee’s lodestar. At times, I thought I saw bits of MediaCorp’s Growing Up even when I think he was gunning for the late Yasmin Ahmad’s storytelling, particularly Talentime (2009), a film of considerable emotional depth, and the title, coincidentally (?) Wonder Boy’s recurring theme. A comment in Letterboxd was unmistakable about Ms Ahmad’s skills at tugging at heartstrings: “Its 3am and I have the OST of this movie on loop while tears stroll down my face.” For me, I still get goose bumps when I hear Go sung by Mohd Syafie Naswip as the good Muslim boy Hafiz.

Kheng as Lee pic 2Benjamin Kheng’s geeky Dick Lee

As a first-time film maker, it would be aiming too high to scale the height Ms Ahmad had reached, just as it was when Mr Lee, as a school boy, aimed for Elton John’s musical sophistication. Rather, I see Jack Neo’s grassroots anguish (co-director Daniel Yam’s part?) set instead in upper-middle class surroundings, with the protagonists going about the way the chief director remembers things to be. Benjamin Kheng as Dick Lee with bad hair plays it one note shy of over-the-top (or is it just teenage angst?). While, from certain angles, he has the boyish charm of the young Dick Lee, there’s an impishness about the pop singer that he was not able to portray. In contrast, the ill-casted Julie Tan as sex-bait Linda has the emotional range of teak. A surprisingly more striking and believable performance was from Zachary Ibrahim as Marc de Souza, the band mate with a tortured background and testosterone-charging, machismo-pushing anxiety.

As far as authenticity goes, the Wonder Boys was really Harmony, Dick Lee’s first band that he did not form and that predated Dick and the Gang, a group that he did form, comprising Mr Lee and his siblings, much like Jackson 5 or the Osmonds (it is rather odd that the younger brothers have virtually no speaking parts in the film even when John Lee would later play a crucial role as arranger of many of his pop-star brother’s songs). I am not sure why Harmony could not retain its original name. Perhaps the founding members did not agree to it. The Wonder Boys is really too similar to The Wonders in the Tom Hanks-directed That Thing You Do!, with none of the latter’s root-for-the-underdog energy. Which makes one wonder if, in our era of fake news, this is a fake biopic.

Film stills: YouTube/MM2 Entertainment, Bert Films and Dick Lee Asia

Google Doodle Salutes Eiko Ishioka

Google Doodle 12 Jul 2017

Movie fans, especially film costume aficionados, would know Eiko Ishioka. Therefore, if you use Google Search today, you may recognise the five illustrations that appear on Google Doodles: Ms Ishioka’s costumes from 2006’s The Fall, a film so fantastical, outlandish, and unlike any out there that Roger Ebert calls it “a movie that you might want to see for no other reason than because it exists”. In fact, it is in the genre of fantasy films that Ms Ishioka made her mark.

Ms Ishioka passed away in 2012. Today would have been her 79th birthday. And Google—a salute to them—decided to honour one of film’s most creative costume designers. If The Fall is unfamiliar to you, consider Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula of 1992. It scored Ms Ishioka an Oscar for best costume. We remember quite vividly the outlandish ruff worn by the coquettish Lucy Westenra (played by Sadie Frost) and how it stood beautifully even in the midst of an exorcism.

This is not the first time Google Doodles pays tribute to fashion figures. Back in 2013, there was also homage to another film costume name: Edith Head. Last December, there was animation to celebrate the work and invention of Charles Macintosh, whose namesake outerwear is synonymous with rainwear. Since its introduction in 1998, Google Doodles has celebrated the works of giants of design such as Sir Norman Parkinson and Zaha Hadid.

Eiko IshiokaEiko Ishioka. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

The choice of Eiko Ishioka proves that Google does not hide from less conventional fashion figures or those not immediately identifiable by the average Google user. Ms Ishioka did not share Colleen Atwood’s fame and vast body of work; she did not, in fact, have her start in films. She was trained as a graphic designer, began with Shiseido, and later made her mark in the advertising scene in Tokyo, where, for those old enough to remember, her work for the retailer Parco caught the admiration of her peers. In one of Parco’s television commercials, Ms Ishioka art-directed a chiselled-face Faye Dunaway to do nothing other than crack, peel, and eat an egg!

Her Oscar win led to other film projects. Apart from Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Fall, there’s also Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (her first film in 1985) and those by her partner-in-crime Tarsem Singh: The Cell, Immortal and Mirror Mirror (not just The Fall). She also designed for the stage, garnering two Tony nominations in 1988 for M Butterfly. Proving that the art director in her never left, she won, a year earlier, a Grammy for the Miles Davis album Tutu.

While her creative output was varied, including the monochrome and minimalist music video for Bjorg’s Cocoon which showed almost no clothes (a break from costume design, or, as Tarsem Singh told WWD, “Eiko had only two gears: full-out or no gear at all”?), it was her costume work for strange worlds that continue to capture the adoration of fans. These included Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai and the massive stage wear of Grace Jones’s 2009 Hurricane tour that only the singer can pull off.

Many of Ms Ishioka’s fans note that she made a success for herself in an industry dominated by men. But we think it is more remarkable that she had left such a legacy in show business that was, and still is, the domain of the West. Eiko Ishioka, you are missed.

Watched: Wonder Woman

As hypothermia-resistant Wonder Woman, the fights are fast and furious. As man-saving Diana Prince, the fashion is fusty and feeble

They love her: the reviewers. So this one must be good, or, at least, not another DC dud. That’s what we were led to believe until all the CGI scenes and slow-mo action started to bore, and you direct your attention at the titular character.

Wonder Woman the film is watchable, but Wonder Woman the superhero isn’t quite enthralling. Sure, Gal Gadot as Princess Diana is a beauty to behold, but her performance belongs to the Angelina Jolie school of acting. As we sat in Hall 4 of Film Garde Cineplex not quite transfixed, we kept spotting Lara Croft spying us from all corners of the screen.

It does not help that Ms Gadot pouts (actually, frown-pouts) when she wants to be fierce. Which means Wonder Woman, too, works her lips, making us wonder why they weren’t part of her arsenal, like those up-to-the-elbows bullet-proof cuff bracelets. And just like the Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman dodges bullets deftly, using her body as an aerodynamic fighting machine. It’s the costume, you see: that amazing armour/swimwear (the earliest version of the comic had WW wear a skirt!) that allows her body to be a weapon of defence rather than an object of desire.

Wonder woman costume 1

Not that the costume adopted by Lynda Carter as the Amazonian—the one we remember most—is great (too campy, too pageant, as many today would concur), but the leather-and-loin-cloth combo of Gadot’s WW, designed by Lindy Hemming (who, also happen to have designed the Lara Croft costumes), led us to think of Sheena Queen of the Jungle. Perhaps the aesthetic/silhouette similarity should be acceptable since Princess Diana grew up on an island that’s forested, even when her homeland (and training grounds) is a take on Rivendell, and a poor one.

What annoyed us somewhat is the lack of explanation to how WW’s costume came about. This is supposed to be her backstory, but the costume just appeared—in the middle of the trenches of war. Sure, she’s similarly dressed back home on Themyscira (more commonly known as Paradise Island), but she did not pack extra clothes when she left with Steve Trevor, whom she rescued earlier, to fight a war that she believes was initiated by Ares, the god of war.

Nope, there is not the famous spin perfected by Ms Carter on the TV series. Wonder Woman of 2017, in a hooded cloak, merely turns with her back to the camera and then faces front with the superhero costume intact. Until then, she does not know she is a superhero and one who needs a costume. How did it become so calculated? Although the script made sure she could speak many languages, including, gasp, Sumerian (can she read cuneiform text, and, therefore, the Epic of Gilgamesh?!), it did not reveal to us that Wonder Woman could cut and sew, unlike, say, Peter Parker.

Wonder woman costume 2Wonder woman costume 3

When feminism is now worn on the chest, this is the female-empowerment movie of the year. The leather (or PU, or latex?) bustier number should be able to say something about sartorial emancipation. But it seems to revive the body-con ideal that never fails to be the feminine ideal. Less revealing than Lynda Carter’s perhaps, but it is even more perfectly shaped than any costume seen in an action film involving a heroine—clearly requiring sewing technology, which seems at odds with an at-war society that required rescuing from a woman who fights with swords, spears, and bows and arrows.

With much of the action and story taking place in the battle grounds of what is believed to be World War I (which, interestingly, took place before DC’s creation of Wonder Woman), WW’s alter-ego Diana Prince requires almost no fashion, just as she needs no man’s chivalry to feel attractive, desired, or feminine. Maybe just his charity (he had to buy her something decent to wear). Clothes, as her urban contemporaries know them, seem to be hindrance to her as a warrior. In fact, she does not need to hide her identity, morphing from Wonder Woman to Diana Prince and back rather unconsciously and effortlessly. When she fights, she is costumed as WW. When she’s off the battleground, she is an I-have-no-time-nor-interest-in-fashion woman.

In fact, part of the script showed how uncomfortable she was with clothes of the world outside Themyscira. When Major Steve Trevor took her shopping in London (apparently at Selfridges) for a set of garments that would look less like underclothes, she scoffed at the choices offered to her, impressing her minder that no one could fight in outfits that cover so much of the body. Wonder Woman, who grew up in what could be considered temperate clime oddly requires no more than a hooded cape to survive snowfall!

Wonder woman costume 4

Diana Prince, Major Trevor’s “secretary”, came by accident rather than as a real character to conceal her superhero identity. Part of the Diana Prince look (disguise?) is her glasses. In the comics, Ms Prince wore many different types, including rimless styles and chunky ’70s frames that would delight Alessandro Michele to no end. Lynda Carter’s was glamorous instead of secretary-conservative, just as Mr Michele’s versions for Gucci are geeky-alluring.

But when Diana Prince was treated to a makeover in London—her first port of call in the movie, she was given a pair of specs that looked like it was hastily picked from Owndays rather than something consistent with those worn in the early 1900s. Those glasses strangely appeared so briefly—during an alleyway ambush—that they don’t even amount to a cameo costume role, just as Diana Prince herself is down-played.

We’re no studious followers of the Wonder Woman comics, but we’re aware that there have been many delineations of the character. No matter how she was and is drawn, there has always been an element of sexual tease in the print versions. There too is humour, whimsy, and, dare we say, camp. But, Wonder Woman, the movie, is a dark, serious, not-fun account of the most known female superhero characters. While director Patty Jenkins has been lauded as a terrific first female director of a superhero movie, it is notable, perhaps, that, in order to gain the accolades, a woman directing a woman needs to stay clear of camp. This is a competent virgin outing, but not one with flair, let alone style.

We’re urged to revisit past print portrayals of Wonder Woman: in some, she even looks like Angelica Huston!

Photo (top): Zhao Xiangji. Movie stills: Warner Bros Pictures

Who Sewed Noah’s Clothes?

Noah Costume 1By Raiment Young

You can look in the Bible for many things about the past, but you can’t find fashion trends. There are mentions of clothes, of course, yet there’s no revelation of what were current styles. Not that there were no affluent people either in the tales of the Book, yet you do not get a clear description of what was the rage. “There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen…” went a description in Luke 16:19, suggesting, perhaps, coloured garments—or dyed cloths—were a luxury for the wealthy. Still, for the ancients, rocking a certain look was not encouraged. In 1 Peter 3:3, there’s the stern recommendation: “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel”.

The Bible authors’ apparent omission of prevalent styles could have been brought about by the disdain of fashion-centric choices such as mixed fibres and ornamentation. In fact, there’s quite a bit of do-nots here: “Thou shalt not wear a garment of diverse sorts, as of woollen and linen together (Deuteronomy 22:11)” and “…women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array (1 Timothy 2:9).” And nothing akin to boyfriend shirts and boy-cut jeans too, since “the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man… for all that do so are abomination… (Deuteronomy 22:5)”!

Noah Costume 2

No wonder the costumes of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film Noah appear decidedly post-Common Era. Unlike the look of the ark, which could benefit from measurements spelled out in the Bible (materials to be used included), what Noah and his family wore did not draw from ancient dressmaking specs. Earlier this evening, as I watched the film, trying to reconcile the retelling with the story I know since kindergarten, the costume’s extremely modern make and silhouette was as interruptive as the smartphone that lit repeatedly three seats away from me.

Mr Aronofsky’s US$125m blockbuster was prefaced with an admission that they took “artistic licence” with the narrative, which “is inspired by the story of Noah”. This disclaimer should really cover the costume design too. So much far-fetch reimagining of the period’s clothes was there that when close-ups afforded a magnification of the details, I kept seeing bobbins and pins! Not the coarse fabrics, not the unfinished hems, and certainly not the whip stitch could belie the machine finish. I find myself resisting acceptance of the shirts of Noah (played by a gladiator-in-skinny-pants Russell Crow)—yes, shirts, with plackets and yokes, no less! What was disconcerting was that an ark builder awaiting the wiping out of the world would don chemises with the fit of Oxford Street tailors!

Noah Costume 5And costume designer Michael Wilkinson (Man of Steel, 2013) did not stop absurdity in its tracks.When a coat was required, Noah wore a gored version with multiple exposed seams that would not look out of place in a rack of Yohji Yamamoto outerwear. His eldest son Shem (Douglas Booth) looked pretty in a hooded shirt with oversized patch pockets that was clearly shaped after the signature styles of Junya Watanabe. Even the cracked surface treatment of the tunic worn by Noah’s grandfather Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) had more than a whiff of Maison Martin Margiela about it! The two female leads did not fare any better. Noah’s wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), at one point, wore a tank top pinched just below the shoulders to create a décolleté not unlike a sweetheart neckline. Her adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson), played up her youth and femininity with a distressed warp-knit tunic that conveniently slipped off the right shoulder. Were the costumes produced out of an H&M sampling room? For a tale that predates the Exodus, Noah appears to be more clothes-conscious than Moses!

Nearing the end of the film, one costume I noticed that had stayed true to the Bible’s depiction was the birthday suit: the one on an inebriated Noah lying naked on the beach.

Noah is currently screening in cinemas. All verses quoted are from the King James version, Cambridge edition. Photos: Paramount Pictures Corporation 

The Future Chic Of Geeks

Her Pic 1By Raiment Young

From start to finish, sight trumps sound, and Casey Storm’s costume beats Scarlett Johansson’s voice! In Spike Jonze’s film Her, it’s really the visual against the aural, and I like the seen more than the heard. Sometimes, the voice of a woman, no matter how alluring, cannot, over two hours, out-seduce the turnout of a man.

Her is set in LA of the not-far-off future, where the computer communicates by voice rather than by text or icon. Yes, it’s Siri as operating system and personal assistant! In comes Theodore Twombly, a letter writer (played by Joaquin Phoenix) for an e-commerce site. As expected, he falls for the seducer of an operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and goes on what Kraftwerk had called in 1981 a “data date”. Theodore appears to be an average guy with the usual taste in women, but his skill in written correspondence and taste in clothes are far from average.

If costume plays an important role in shaping a cinematic story—defining character and delineating culture, Her’s is no exception. The thoughtfully conceived wardrobe of the protagonist illustrates that in a future society too comfortable with personal tech that may cause unease, comfortable clothes, like those of today, can exist because of man’s humanity rather than a mainframe’s algorithms. In fact, the film’s costume has more impact on the viewer than the expected throaty (hence sexy?) and coquettish seduction of the OS. Garb can turn you on more than spiel.

I was attracted to the protagonist’s clothes for their kooky stylishness as well as the antithesis of a futuristic world they represent. There’s no stereotyping, too, for a man can wear loose shapes, choose bright colours, and adopt not-the-usual pairings as naturally as maneuvering the landscapes of projected fantasy RPGs.

Unfortunately, Theodore’s clothes are not, by many SG women’s still-unchanged standards, supremely conventional. As two of them pushed past me to leave the cinema, one was heard saying, “His clothes are weird,” followed by the other, “The pants are ugly” (or as Cath Clark, TimeOut London’s film editor, called them, “worrying high-waisted dad-slacks”).

Why are Theodore Twombly’s outfits peculiar and his pants offensive?

Her Pic 2Let’s first look at the pants: high-waist and low-crotch—made, often, out of nubby fabrics. The daring cut, unbeknownst to a generation of skinny jeans wearers, is rather old-fashioned, and is, in fact, as pointed out by Casey Storm, based on riding pants of the 1800s. The version that appeared on screen is clearly roomy, but not baggy. The high waist is not so alien since it has been offered by Lanvin, Neil Barrett and Comme des Garcons and the low crotch, too, is not unfamiliar since it has been done by Vivienne Westwood, Damir Doma, and Rick Owens.

It is interesting that there are SG women who take issue with the high waist when so many have, for the past five years or more, been wearing slacks, shorts, and skirts above their belly button, sometimes all the way up to just below the bust line. But when men re-position the waist so that they bring attention to the torso, they’re considered unattractive. Has this challenged presently acceptable machismo and attendant sexiness, where male sexual magnetism is centred above the crotch? Have the pants of Theodore Twombly become an affront to the unceasing love for the svelte and hot silhouette of limb-hugging jeans, pants that are so clearly absent in the film? Or is this a case of when women do, men shouldn’t dare?

Her Pic 4Then, there are the collarless shirts (and the one in plaid with the collar deliberately turned inward to show only the collar stand). Once popular in the Nineties (especially those by Armani), they are now considered the poor sibling of the tailored, collared shirt (with stays, no less!), so prominently vended by retailers such as Raoul and Benjamin Barker. What’s truly interesting is how the collarless shirts are styled in the film: they’re not only worn on their own but also as an outer over a polo or collared shirt! Is this too off-beat for women to submit to?

Perhaps for a film so manifestly about the years ahead, the clothes shouldn’t be identifiably retro. But so much of the visual aspects of the films are at odds with future tech: the all-in-one PCs are shaped like (or housed in) old-fashioned picture frames (anti-Apple?) and the GUIs shown on the screens are decidedly old-school (handwriting fonts!). Even Theodore Twombly’s home is warm and woodsy rather than a cold marriage of glass and metal, supposedly future’s preferred interior and exterior materials. In his bedroom, where a significant part of the plot unfolds, his bedside table is really a tall stool with a wooden seat, on top of which sits the table lamp.

In creating folkways and environments peculiar to the future, Spike Jonze, together with production designer K.K. Barrett, has conceived a world that, despite garrulous OIs dominating lives, is rooted in what’s comfortable and real—a comfort and reality not so different from what we pursue today. He may have lost in his computer love, but in the style stakes, Theodore Twombly won out.