William Chang was born in Hong Kong in 1953. He is probably best known for his work with the director Wong Kar-wai and for his huge variety of roles, including production designer, art director, costume designer and editor. He is well known within the industry for being a highly creative, introverted and modest person.
He began drawing and designing at age seven. Although retiring, William Chang decided early on that he wanted to work in film. He eventually managed to persuade his father to pay for film school in Vancouver. He says that ‘The Graduate changed my life—it taught me how a film is not merely a tool for storytelling, but an art as well. After seeing it, I was determined to join the film business. But my parents were not happy I chose this path—my father told me not to tell anyone that I studied art because art is “useless.”’ ( Yeung, 2010)
Chang returned to Hong Kong in 1976 and got his first job as Art Director in 1980 on the thriller film Love Massacre directed by the ‘new wave’ director Patrick Tam. Patrick Tam, later, introduced him to Wong Kar-wai when Wong was a scriptwriter. They immediately became friends and seven years later when Wong directed his first film As Tears Go By (1988), he asked Chang to be his art director.
The film was heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973), but visually inspired from very different sources. Chang says that he has been significantly by French New Wave and Italian films. The colour palette of the film concentrated on strong blues and reds, which resembles the visual style of Jean-Luc Godard’s films in the late sixties.
Since working on As Tears Go By, William Chang has worked on every film that Wong Kar-wai has directed. His education in film encouraged Wong’s faith in him and their films became intensely collaborative. Chang’s role as editor is particularly open. Wong says ‘William’s just very good at it – he studied film, and he has very good judgement. Most of the time, I say, I’ll shoot the film, and you edit it. Why not?’ (Calhoun, J. 2001)
In 1990 Wong and Chang made the film Days of Being Wild. This is the first of Tony Leung’s three appearances as the character Chow Mo-wan, which he resumes for the films In the Mood for Love (2000) and 2046 (2004). The style is very different in terms of the colours used, but the detail and saturation is carried through from his earlier work.
His sets became even more complicated in Chungking Express (1994). Chang believes that he learns from each piece of work. His design comes from the story and describes art direction as creating a world for the film. He particularly dislikes it when he is hired for a ‘William Chang style’. He says that ‘If you can tell that it is mine, then I should stop. Each time, I have to have moved on.’ ( Yeung, 2010)
Fallen Angels (1995) is more experimental in terms of visual design, using fisheye lenses and again hyper saturation in an urban setting. Earthy greens and oranges confuse the senses. Chang states ‘There is no definition of beauty—beauty can be found in things that are traditionally not beautiful; beauty can be found in ruins; beauty can be found in imperfection.’ (Yeung, 2010)
Happy Together (1997) has a gritty and unconventional beauty with heavy shadows that reinforce the tension caused by the volatile changes in the central characters’ relationship. The two men leave Hong Kong to go to Argentina as an attempt to heal their ailing relationship and so the setting of Buenos Aires is emphasised as an alien and exotic location.
‘For Happy Together (1997), I was looking at Nan Goldin’s photographs and I was using those really rich colours and textures. But the whole thing actually started from a sweater… I cannot really describe to you the feeling, but it all developed around this. I always knew it was right. I always need this starting point, this object.’ (Page 50, Halligan, F. 2012)
In the Mood for Love (2000) became one of Wong Kar-wai’s most successful films and this is, in part, due to the incredible detail of the 1960’s setting. Maggie Cheung, the lead actress in In the Mood for Love (2000), said ‘William is a supersensitive, super talented person. He has eyes that see things sharper. Because of this, Wong Kar-wai films would not be what they are without William.’ (Seno, A. 2006)
Chang has a strong belief in his work and explains that the reason he works less in the ‘mainland film industry’ is that it is too director-orientated. He says that the ‘Directors have too much power and they don’t allow other people’s opinions.’ Chang considers himself to be very fortunate as the directors he worked with valued his input and he was allowed a lot of freedom in his designs. He says of Wong Kar-wai, that ‘We each know what the other wants.’ (Yeung, W. 2010)
The film, 2046 (2004), the third in the series, is one of their most striking films. It blends a late 60s setting with futuristic scenes imagined by the novelist character. 2046 is both the room he stays in and the year in which his novel is set. 2046 was planned as a sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000). Those who have seen it might remember that his character went to a hotel, and to room 2046, to write samurai serials for a magazine. Reds, yellows and greens are the key colours in this film and produce a brilliant sense of the atmosphere needed in each scene. The green is the image above is used to give a sense of apprehension and it used together with blue to hint at the powerlessness of the characters. The next two images are much warmer. The first scene has added anxiety from the use of red and the last is much softer and more romantic with its use of warm yellows.
Although he still worked closely with the artists to try to achieve the design he intended, this film was more difficult for Chang as there were a lot of computer-generated visual effects that he was not responsible for.
‘I like to be in control of everything- I like to control the whole look. That’s why I like editing.’ (Page 52, Halligan, F. 2012)
Chang’s abilities to design for period settings were, again, displayed in Stanley Kwan’s film Everlasting Regret (2005). The film’s timeframe is from Shanghai in the 1940s, right through to the 1980s, with very few shots of the city itself. The passage of time is shown through the change in décor, clothes and hairstyles.
Chang admits that he actually prefers designing for modern settings, but this is unlikely to be noticed in his projects. He surrounds himself with his work. He explains, ‘Even after day of shooting, I go home, and my mind is still working, thinking of the costumes, thinking of the props, every minute I’m thinking of that because I enjoy it.’ (Page 52, Halligan, F. 2012)
William Chang is currently working on The Grandmasters, due to be released in 2013. This is a much larger production than either Wong Kar-wai or William Chang are used to working on. The film is about the early years of the martial arts master Ip Man. Chang says that he has researched the subject thoroughly, but didn’t watch any other films ‘because for me, production-design-wise, they are not meticulous enough’ (Page 51, Halligan, F. 2012)
William Chang is fully absorbed in his creative work and continues on non-filmic projects in between films. He is an interior decorator and has designed his own furniture range. He says that ‘I never stop working. Your life is over if you stop using your brain.’ (Yeung, W. 2010)
- Winnie Yeung. (2010). William Chang Suk-ping. Available: http://hk.asia-city.com/movies/article/first-person-william-chang-suk-ping. Last accessed 12 Dec 2012.
- Calhoun, J. (2001). Film. Available: http://livedesignonline.com/mag/show_business_film/. Last accessed 12 Dec 2012.
- Halligan, F (2012). Filmcraft: Production Design. Edition. Ilex.
- Seno, A. (2006). By design, he remains behind-the-scenes star.Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/05/arts/05iht-fmlede6.html. Last accessed 12 Dec 2012.