Yellow is Forbidden: A Kiwi director's fashion doco stands apart from the rest

by James Robins / 12 November, 2018
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China’s foremost fashionista is the subject of Pietra Brettkelly's strikingly beautiful new documentary.

Guo Pei has been the éminence grise of Chinese fashion for the past decade. Her creations are ornate, baroque and bombastic. Glimmering with gold and heavy with delicate embroidery, elaborate outfits are often adorned with phoenixes and dragons. She only became known to Western audiences when the singer Rihanna walked the 2015 Met Gala red carpet in one of her most audacious garments.

Near the beginning of Yellow is Forbidden, an absorbing and gorgeous documentary about Guo from New Zealand director Pietra Brettkelly, an admiring onlooker asks the designer a question: “How does your work represent China’s haute couture?” It doesn’t, she retorts, “I’m just a designer. Not a nation.”

Well, quite. But as much as Guo yearns for independence, Yellow is Forbidden shows that she is undoubtedly a product of that nation and its history.

Her earliest years were fired by stories of the Qing imperial court – the last of China’s dynasties where yellow was reserved for the powerful. Her talent was only able to flower once the stifling drabness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution was dismantled. A touching sequence sees Guo visiting her elderly parents. Her father still takes pride in his People’s Army uniform. Her mother is nearly blind and has never seen a Guo Pei show. “We brought up such a good girl for our country,” she says, regardless.

Little wonder, then, that her 2017 breakthrough moment in Paris – a bid to impress the heavyweights of haute couture, and the climax of the film – drew inspiration from a similar period of upheaval in France. It was held in the grand halls of La Conciergerie, a prison in the days of the Reign of Terror and Marie Antoinette’s last abode before she went to the guillotine. The designs look like something from the court of Louis XVI, splintered through Guo’s kaleidoscopic aesthetic. Audaciously, she gave the French their own culture back to them.

Brettkelly is a quietly observant film-maker. She lets scenes unfold without interjecting and without queuing up talking heads. But she is keenly aware that fashion is a rarefied business confined to the realm of profligate wealth and, more importantly, that even the most miraculous works of art are not conjured from nothing. The director dwells for a moment on the workers who labour to bring Guo’s designs to life – tens of thousands of hours precisely weaving, threading and crafting. (But don’t imagine that this team of 300 will walk out at the end of the show to take the bouquet and applause.)

Amid the recent fashion for designer docos, such as McQueen and Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, Brettkelly’s Yellow is Forbidden stands apart. It’s more accomplished, involving and, by virtue of Guo’s vision, strikingly beautiful.

Video: Madman Films



This article was first published in the November 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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