The character images, costume designs and the set designs in "The Promise" are avant-garde, surrealistic, shocking to the eyes and unflinchingly beautiful with their bold use of dramatic colors and design concepts.
Dubbed the Chinese version of "The Lord of the Rings" series, "The Promise" starts with the captions: "When the world was young, gods and humans co-existed. There were wars between the different kingdoms. The Goddess of Fate was the only supreme being who governed above all."
"When I took on this project, the first thing I had to do was to understand what Chen Kaige's vision was for the movie. I understood that it's a fantasy story set in an unspecified period of time," Tim Yip tells Taiwan News in an exclusive interview. "We wanted to convey the esthetics of the Oriental beauty to the audience. The design is, as a result, not specifically Chinese. It's a mixture of Asian designs culled from Chinese, Japanese and Korean arts."
Although Yip is mostly known for his sumptuous and historically faithful designs for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," creating authentic Chinese ancient costumes is not the only trick up Yip's sleeve.
As an artist, Yip loves to bounce ideas back and forth for unexpected results. Way before the five-color scheme of "Hero," Yip collaborated with Hong Kong auteur Clara Law with the period movie "Tempting Monk" starring superstar Joan Chen and Taiwan thespian Wu Hsing-kuo. In that movie, Yip bravely divides the movie into two parts, with the first part in red and the second half in blue. Joan Chen, who plays a dual role of a Princess and an assassin, gets to appear on screen in floral gowns and flaming lipstick in the first half and then in icy-cold blue make up as a female monk.
For Chen Kaige's fantasy kungku movie "The Promise," Yip is carrying his vision of avant-garde, surrealism and highbrow esthetics into a mega-budget commercial movie. What seems like a very risky business actually turns out to be a dream marriage of a fantasy movie and dreamy, avant-garde designs.
"I was so busy tackling with the character images, costume and setting designs during the shooting that I slept only one or two hours a day at that time," Yip moans. "What a nightmare!"
While "The Lord of the Rings" attempts to ground its fantasy story into the setting of a mostly gray color scheme costume and setting design, "The Promise" opts to make its fantasy and metaphoric story upfront and clearing by utilizing shocking, attention-grabbing and outlandishly beautiful designs.
Color-wise, Yip daringly uses gold, silver, black and red as the four primary colors for the costumes and architectures in the movies.
The Imperial City in the movie is a jaw-dropping vision of a imperial court with shining gold roofs and flaming-red wall on the imperial palace, the city gate and the gargantuan pillars. The imperial palace plaza is surrounded by wall walls with gold rim on the top and occupied by imperial soldiers in armors of black and silver.
"With the movie's Chinese title called 'Wu Ji' --which means infinite possibilities in Chinese -- and its metaphysical storyline about the interaction between love and fate, I had to try to find a central motif for this movie," explains Yip. "I settled on is the circular shape. The circle metaphorically implies that the beginning is also the end. We use circle as the recurrent shape for most of the settings."
The circle shape structure can be seen in the designs of the movie's four major settings: the entire Imperial City with its circular walls on the outset, the Parliament court, the Cherry Tree Villa and the final battle ground in which a circular Chinese court surrounds a cherry tree in the center.
With the parliament court, gigantic golden waterdroplet-like structuers hang on the ceiling or droops down to the ground to become fluid-shaped golden pillars. The circular court is surrounded by scarlet-red walls with golden circular windows. The image looks more like an installation art piece rather than a movie set.
"It's true that I try to bring in as many refresh and avant-garde ideas into this movie as possible," explains Yip. "For some of these settings, the actors are literally performing and interacting with each other among a gigantic installation art space."
As for the design of the movie's major characters, Yip creates numerous versions of designs for director Chen to choose from in accord with the need of the story.
For Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung - who portrays the central character of Princess Qinsheng - it took a total of seven days to test and adjust her image, makeup and costume. A ravishing beauty equally known for her acting talent and for her upfront personality, Cheung went berserk after the seven days and screamed at Yip "I really want to whack you on the head!"
"In a typical Hong Kong movie, it usually takes only two hours to do the makeup and dress testing. Cecilia didn't expect the test dressing to last for a week," Yip said with a chuckle. "But I know she appreciates it a lot after the process is finished. She really looks ravishing in this movie."
The most eye-catching costume is the "thousand-feather dress." For this beautiful and symbolic dress, Yip literally sent his assistants out to gather more than a thousand white feathers in order to create the unique dress.
The "thousand-feather dress" appears in two occasions. It's a precious gift the duke gives to the princess as a symbol of his love even as he imprisons her inside a giant golden bird cage. Then slave Kunlen appears at the roof to drop a red string to rescue Qinsheng out of her cage. Then, with his special talent of running with lightening speed, Kunlen holds the string and tornados through the vast green lawn, leaving Qinsheng flying above the blue sky like a kite in an image from a surrealist painting.
The other scene takes place after Qinsheng is again kidnapped by the duke and put inside the feather dress again. The general dons his crimson armor and silver roccoco mask and rides a horse to invade the duke's territory. The general picks up Qinsheng in her feather dress, holds her and leaps over the troupes of duke to escape again.
Another key image and costume is when Qinsheng appears on the Imperial Palace roof for the first time. The name "Qinsheng" in Chinese means "so beautiful that cities fall beneath her." The duke's troops arrive at the Imperial City to dethrone the king and claim Qinshen.
Qinsheng appears in a black cape with a veil of silk black fabric covering half of her face. Knowing the power of her beauty, Qinsheng stares down as she says, "if you want see what's beneath my cape, drop your weapon now." The soldiers oblige. Qinsheng takes of her veil and throws the black cape away into the winds, revealing her unrivalled beauty dressed only in a scanty ancient Chinese woman's "dudo" or underwear with another layer of florid, semi-transparent gown wrapped outside.
"For this image, I tried various methods in order to create the effect of someone who can conquer battalions of soldiers simply with her beauty," explains Yip. "With Cecilia's beautiful face, I decided that simplicity is the best principle. I simply parted her long hair in the middle. For the makeup, I decided to dye her eyebrows to a light brown color - making them disappear into her skin - and then draw two unique lines of red eyebrows over her eyes. I completed the look with red lipstick."
For the male lead, the slave Kunlen, portrayed by Korean superstar Jang-don Jan, Yip designed seven different images and costumes to show the character's gradual transformation.
"Jang has such a handsome face that I had trouble trying to make him look slave-like even after I put dirt on his face," says Yip. "The most I could do was to soil his face and mess up his hair. Even in slave costumes, Jang remains a powerful, magnetic star."
The slave Kunlen's character starts out wearing a simple tattered, pale green linen dress. After becoming the slave of General Quanming, Kunlen gets to wear a red sleeveless coat over the linen dress. After his soul-searching journey to his home country, Snow Nation, to discover his true identity, Kunlen is given a colorful feather cloak as a symbol of his enlightenment by the Ghoul, the other survivor of the Snow Nation genocide.
For the male leads in "The Promise," the crimson armor worn by the general, portray by Japanese superstar Hiroyuki Sanada, is most important piece of costume. Representing power in the movie, the crimson armor changes hand several times in the movie and is irrevocably tied into the plotline.
The general's setup is a lavish crimson-colored armor with elaborate motifs complete with a silver roccoco style helmet that shines brightly under the sun.
Sanada's other important dress is the lover's gown he wears during his hiatus at the Cherry Tree Villa. During this time, Guanming joyously spends time with Qinsheng as lovers. The two wear identical Tang-style lovers' gowns that are silky, transluscent and patterned with cherry blossom, leaves and slender winding branches.
"The lovers' gowns and the crimson armor are the two most complicated costumes in this movie," explains Yip. "These two are not costumes comprised of huge block of colors. They contain extremely elaborate patterns. Because this is a movie, we could not use any existing patterned fabric for fear of possible duplication. We had to hire specialists to paint these delicate patterns by hand."
It took four days for a specialist to finish painting the patterns on each piece of the lover's gown. As for the crimson armor, it took two months for a specialist to finishing painting it.
"Because of the importance of the crimson armor in the movie, we decided to make two identical sets of the crimson armor costume," Yip explains. "We used one for the action scenes exclusively. We reserved the other one for the dramatic scenes which needed close-up shots so that we are sure the one used for close-ups would not accidentally get torn or destroyed during the shooting."
For the morally ambiguous ducal character, Yip designed three major costumes for three different occasions.
The first one is the duke's silver armor dress which actor Nicolas Tse wears when he invades the Imperial City. A bit similar to the crimson armor in style, this silver armor is made of silver and black armor dress, a giant silver roccoco helmet with a lion motif.
The duke's other image is a very conventional setup of neatly-combed long hair and a white long scholar-style gown with Qing dyasty collars. Arguably the most simple costume in the movie, this dress is savvily used for great dramatic effect. When the duke first dons this white dress, he has already imprisoned Qinsheng inside the giant gold bird cage. He expresses his love for her and blackmails her at the same time, with his facial expression contorting and unexpected effeminate gestures waving through the air, showing a complex character that is in strong contrast to his dress.
Chinese actor Liu Ye's Ghoul character has one main costume. However, this is arguably the most interesting and avant-garde piece in the whole movie. After he is burned and becomes one of the living dead, the Ghoul's soul is kept alive by a black feather cloak with peacock feathers at the inlay of the cloak. Completing the cloak is a rectangular black hat with two translucent black fabric drooping down, cover half of his face most of the time. To finish the effect of a living dead look, silvery foundation is applied to his face with black coloring his lips and eyelids.
Finally, there is the pivotal role of the Goddess of Fate portrayed by Chinese actress Chen Hong.
For the majority of the movie, the goddess appears in an astounding beautiful floral pale green and pale purple gown with her long sleeves flying and flipping in the sky. Her coiff is a divine two-bun ancient style with the long hair flying into the air as well. The makeup is simple and understated. Layers of green jade necklaces adorn her low-cut florid gown.
The only other outfit the goddess wears is when she appears in the front of a tree as a seductress when the General is lost in a forest. She is wearing a sultry low-cut, all red Tang style gown. In this flaming red lavish gown, she radiates the aura of passion and evilness at the same time. She starts flirting sweetly with the General for a while and suddenly reveals her vicious side by scolding at him and reveals her identity as a Goddess.
"'Mansheng" is a goddess who is morally ambiguous as well.
She wavers between being kind to human beings and wrongly manipulating their fates by wedging bets with them," says Yip. "I tried to convey the feeling of this seemingly righteous goddess who governs all but actually plays tricks with human beings."