The Aura of Authenticity with Costume Designer Nan Zhou
The film industry seems contradictory at times. Professionals such as directors and editors are encouraged to have a signature style which propels their popularity and provide opportunities. On the other end of the spectrum, alongside actors, are costume designers who receive the highest praise for reinventing their approach and personal style with each production they are a part of. Costume designer Nan Zhou smiles with acknowledgment when confronted with this notion; perhaps due to its truth and also because she continually displays that her talent is malleable to nearly any genre of film in existence. A slew of award-winning productions currently on the festival circuit proclaim the extraordinary abilities of this Chinese born professional who has become the first call for many filmmakers. While Zhou has worked with those most lauded of directors (like Oscar Award Winning director Chloe Zhao), she notes that the perhaps lesser known professionals with whom she collaborates are immensely important to her as they provide the canvas upon which she manifests her own personal art in film.
Sometimes it might appear as if Ms. Zhou’s opportunities are serendipitous but make no mistake, they are the result of filmmakers who bear witness to her spectacular contributions to the many productions she been involved with. A film such as The Speech which revolves around the early 2000’s SARS epidemic and takes place in Beijing certainly benefits from someone like Ms. Zhou who understands its impact on the people of the country, but it was director Haohao Yan’s admiration of Nan’s work in previous films which led to her enlistment. Based on the numerous awards she received for The Speech, this decision was well founded. Nan received Best Costume Design Awards from the New York International Film Awards, International Independent Film Awards, New York Movie Awards, as well as many nominations for her work on this film. The Speech has itself received great praise, as noted by its status as an Official Selection at Academy Award, BAFTA, and Canadian Screen Award Qualifying film festivals such as the Palm Springs International ShortFest and Rhode Island International Film Festival. The filmmakers have captured the anxiety of this historical moment which resonates so profoundly in similarity to the current global pandemic. The Speech takes place in a private boarding school where three pre-teen girls struggle to make sense of the world while most of their classmates have gone home amidst the SARS panic. In addition to the subtle fashion trends of twenty years ago that Ms. Zhou manifested for the characters, there is the juxtaposition of formal school uniforms against pajamas which heightens the out-of-place mindset of these young classmates. From textures to colors, Nan painstakingly designed the costumes and procured a company to create the vision which complemented the visual and emotional tone of this frighteningly realistic tale.
From biological terror to time travelling fantasy; Nan’s application of her skills to help director Lowngwei Deng achieve his vision of Tender is the Kiss displays how versatile her creative mind can be. Nan confirms that her work creating the design for the central female character, a time travelling AI known as “Co”, was her favorite part of this film. Prompted by Deng to combine futuristic function with a sense of style, the fact that the film takes place in the 1950’s allowed for a period sensibility in the costumes. Zhou stipulates, “Most of the male characters had costumes that I based on a classic 50’s look but I was able to play more with Co’s attire. I wanted elegance and functionality to her costumes. These ranged from a white wool textured uniform to a black velvet dress with a black wool hooded cape that she often used to conceal part of her face. That wool had its own special power because when we were shooting in the desert; it was freezing! I remember the production manager and I hugging each other to take advantage of the body heat in such temperatures. Movie making is not always comfortable.” Currently on the festival circuit, Tender is the Kiss has already resulted in Best Costume Design awards for Nan from the prestigious Five Continents International Film Festival, Oniros Film Awards (Grand Jury Award), International Independent Film Awards, and others including Best Costume Nominee at the New York International Film Awards.
A very different kind of shocking reality is on display in Caramel, for which Nan Zhou also contributed her costume designs. A family death unearths the truth about a woman’s history in porn, sending her teenage son Eric into an emotional spiral. The true message of this film is that everyone has a history and family should be able to solve any problem by working together. Director Yudi Zhang’s Marie, about a transsexual undergoing reassignment surgery, similarly shows the challenges young people face in present day which were not so common in prior decades…or at least weren’t illuminated by filmmakers. Both of these films are currently Official Selections at a host of noted festivals (Adirondack Film Festival, Festival de cinema de Girona, Filmzeitkaufbeuren, Dublin International Short Film and Music) but long before they materialized on the screen, Nan imagined the costuming. She remarks, “What the characters are wearing is not always stated or obvious when you read the script. A film like Caramel that features a teenager and his group of friends requires observation. You have to think about what they would have in common and what the little differences are which have given them a personal identity in their minds. The shy one, the cool one, etc. My work delves much deeper into understanding the character’s state of mind than most audiences might guess. A character like Marie is in a place where she is evolving externally and is concerned with how it will effect her family’s view of her. That awareness is something we all manifest in our choices of clothing whether we are conscious of it or not.”
Nan Zhou’s work also currently be seen on the Disney + series Disney Launchpad Films.