Cover The play's stars Wan Qian as Bai Liusu (left) and Song Yang as Fan Liu Yuen. Courtesy of Hiro Qiu and Eric Zheng.

Oscar-winning costume designer Tim Yip has chosen famous Shanghainese romance writer Eileen Chang’s work for his stage directorial debut. Here’s why.

Tim Yip has a thing for Eileen Chang. He has been an avid reader of the Shanghainese romance writer for as long as he can remember. “The way she wrote is poetic and unlike any other writer, and her subject matter was [unique],” Yip says, referring to a community of fashionable individuals peopling her stories. These members of society who lived in the city were part of haipai culture, an avant-garde, East-meets-West approach to life started in 1920s Shanghai, where foreign trades were made and western culture was introduced. Their sleek outfits, such as the qipaos worn by wealthier families, are among the most elaborately described elements filling the pages of Chang’s work, including her magnum opus, Love in a Fallen City, a new adaptation of which will mark Yip’s stage directorial debut.

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Given the artist’s reputation in the world of costume design—he was the first Chinese person to win an Academy Award for Best Art Direction and a Bafta Award for Best Costume Design in 2001—one would be justified in expecting him to focus on the fashion for the production, which opened in Shanghai in October, toured in Hangzhou and Hunan in November, and will be be staged in Beijing in January. But for his version of this frequently adapted novella, Yip does more than simply dress his actors to impress. The ambitious multimedia piece incorporates both film and stage elements, and adopts a new approach to the story.

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The story follows Bai Liusu, a Shanghainese divorcée, shunned by her traditional family, and Fan Liu Yuen, a Malaysian businessman and playboy, who find love in war-torn Hong Kong in the 1940s. Instead of being driven by the plot, however, his Love in a Fallen City focuses on what happens in the characters’ minds. “I directed this play because of the uncertainty throughout the story. The two characters can’t readily reach each other even when they’re side by side,” Yip wrote on his Instagram.

Yip has experience as an arts and visual director for film and dance productions, and last month released Love Infinity, an art film about London’s underground culture and how the city inspired artists such as fashion designer Alexander McQueen. But his 30-plus-year career is best known for its lavish and at times experimental costumes that have forged a path for “new Orientalism” in the global costume design and fashion industries.

Yip sews together Asian cultural roots and contemporary aesthetics to redefine Asian fashion, and distance it from the superficial “exotic” label often assigned to it by western media and the fashion industry. Some of his most memorable looks include the elaborate Qing dynasty robes in Ang Lee’s 2000 wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which he won the Bafta; the sumptuous floral dresses commissioned for Christian Dior’s 60th anniversary exhibition; and the glamorous, Roaring Twenties-style costumes designed for Hong Kong Ballet’s The Great Gatsby in 2018. This year, he created uniforms for Team China medallists at the Tokyo Summer Olympics. “I’m always hungry for more, and keen to know what I can create,” he says. “I’m doing many things recently, constantly developing something unexpected. Since Love Infinity, I have been trying to put movie and stage together. Love in a Fallen City was a really good chance to do that.”

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It was with this insatiable appetite that he created his adaptation of a beloved work. Instead of purely a traditional play where actors deliver dialogue and react to each other, Yip also has them interact with a pre-recorded scene onstage, or shows just the film onstage in some of the scenes.

Chang was writing at a period of social instability and at a time when women didn’t enjoy much in terms of freedom of expression or decision-making. But here she was, a rare female voice in a male-dominated landscape, creating realistic portrayals of life and emotion. Yip believes that in depicting her characters, he can also reflect Chang’s essential being.

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But that is easier said than done. Chang’s work is challenging for the stage because of her use of metaphorical and poetic language, and the detailed portrayal of the characters’ psychology, easily expressed in literary texts. “A single character’s feeling or a conversation about minute, quotidian things can take up a few pages, but then ten years could have gone by within one sentence,” Yip says with a helpless chuckle. This is one of the merits of Yip’s multimedia approach. “By putting film onstage, I can close up on Bai Liusu’s face. I want to show how she feels when she talks to Fan Liu Yuen. I want to make new ways of showing the different layers, such as how they feel and change.”

Yip’s background in costume design is also helping him get to grips with directing. “I know every part of the body. I know how the actors should move, pose and breathe to enhance the stage sound quality, to make the costumes sexier or to heighten the emotions,” he says.

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Yip’s venture into directing doesn’t mean he has moved away from his long-held vision of finding new ways to represent Asian culture through costume design; his new role is simply a new conduit for that mission. “I want to build up a new way of seeing qipao, women, the complexity of culture and Chinese identity in the world,” he says. By getting to the heart of the sentiments experienced during times of great social change in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Yip’s Love in a Fallen City explores what it means to live and love when the world is left in shambles, a metaphor that Yip finds relevant to the world today. “Even if I show this play in London, I think people will love it, because there are no boundaries, and this is a time to find connection.”

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