Tag Archives: costume design

Wednesday Collective — “Birds of Prey” Edition

I’m going to keep talking about “Birds of Prey” because it is just that important a film. It’s underrated, speaks to our time, and it’s a lightning rod of toxic reaction to its feminism and diversity. I stopped counting how many comments from people with “nazi” in their name I had on my article “’Birds of Prey’ Box Office Failure is Make Believe”.

This is a film with a generationally good action-comedy performance in Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It has award-worthy design. The direction is wildly assured and draws from a shockingly large range of influences to create something unique and precise. Its scenes are often thickly layered with dueling perspectives even as Quinn’s own storytelling drives the plot. It’s subversive in a blunt, forward, and challenging way that’s needed.

I used to run Wednesday Collective as a weekly gathering of articles on (mostly) film that I found interesting. One of the joys of being a critic is sharing voices with readers that cover diverse perspectives, and that help me learn. Let’s talk about what they have to say about the film’s treatment of trauma, its “Tank Girl” connection, its meaningful costuming, director Cathy Yan, and Margot Robbie as a producer.

BIRDS OF PREY, Trauma, and the Female Gaze
by Jessica Plummer

Birds of Prey lead 1 resize

This is a superb article at Book Riot that deals with a particular moment in “Birds of Prey”. It’s something I could tell was playing out differently, but because I have a male gaze, I focused on the reaction and what that said about toxic masculinity.

There was also something else happening in the scene that I couldn’t identify, that plays to female gaze. That there are so many moments in a film like this, and that it can produce this level of layered meaning in a scene, continues to blow my mind.

It’s also an argument for why we need more women in film and as critics. A male director wouldn’t have included this in the film. A male critic wouldn’t have noticed it in the film. Yet as a man, I can benefit, know more, and find more beauty and care in a piece of art simply from it being included and pointed out to me.

A Girl is a Gun: ‘Birds of Prey’ and the Legacy of ‘Tank Girl’
by Maya Thornton

Promo image for 1995 cult film Tank Girl

Maya Thornton points out for Adventures in Poor Taste one of the stronger influences in “Birds of Prey”: director Rachel Talalay’s 1995 cult classic “Tank Girl”.

Her article considers the through-lines in story, design, and comedy, how each film treats women (and how men react), as well as the differences in how studios acted toward these films in 1995 vs. 2020.

She doesn’t mention, but Margot Robbie’s production company LuckyChap Entertainment optioned the rights to “Tank Girl” in September 2019 as a starring vehicle for Robbie. That doesn’t mean it will definitely get made, but with the film already months into pre-production and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (who directed Robbie in “Dreamland”) tapped to direct it, it’s reasonable to hope.

Harley Quinn’s ‘Birds of Prey’ Costumes are Full of Hidden Meanings
by Irina Grechko

Various Harley Quinn costumes from Birds of Prey

Fashion-centric site Nylon goes into the inspirations behind costume designer Erin Benach’s unique and varied costumes. The strongest influences in “Birds of Prey” are DIY glampunk and glitterpunk, but Blaxploitation, 50s fashion iconography, and emo clubbing accessories each inform characters in the film.

Benach needed to create costumes that made statements, told histories, and defined the world of the film. They needed to be utilitarian and focused on the characters’ preferences instead of the male gaze that dictated Harley Quinn’s costume design in “Suicide Squad”. One of Benach’s most interesting imperatives was to take these influences and do something revolutionary with them – add pants.

How ‘Birds of Prey’ Director Cathy Yan Saved Harley Quinn From Joker and the Male Gaze
by Melissa Leon

Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, and director Cathy Yan in Birds of Prey

Here’s a rangy interview with director Cathy Yan at The Daily Beast. “Birds of Prey” is one of the most self-assured films I’ve seen recently, and it offers a storytelling voice that feels more authentic than anything else DC or even Marvel have done. Yan talks about accentuating the female gaze and how a woman filming women focuses on the actual performance being given. Yan wanted to make sure her characters sweat and that the work and effort they put forth was aspirational – not the impossible beauty standard of an impeccably photoshopped magazine cover.

This is also a different Gotham City than we’ve seen, and Yan has a precise reason for this. She discusses why she wanted to make Harley’s section of Gotham feel like a neighborhood on the outskirts instead of gloomy, downtown Gotham – that a story taking place on the outskirts of power avoids telling a story that focuses too much on established patriarchy.

How Margot Robbie Changed Her Hollywood Destiny
by Anne Helen Petersen

Margot Robbie holds grenade launcher in Birds of Prey

Anne Helen Petersen breaks down Robbie’s path to production and how it enables her to choose her roles and expand the range of other voices in film. The BuzzFeed News article reminds us that Robbie isn’t just clearing a path as an extremely capable actress, she’s also one of the promising and hardest working young producers in film.

Petersen does this in an absolutely brilliant and captivating piece that calls to account male journalists’ coverage of young actresses. It takes steps beyond this to interrogate the opportunities blocked to women as producers and how Robbie’s seized on becoming an important and exciting risk-taker. It highlights the history of how studios have limited women’s opportunities as producers, how women have fought back, and how patriarchal systems artificially block women into competing for limited opportunities while men aren’t similarly obstructed.

That would be more than enough to make the article stunning and important, but Petersen also threads how class plays into the opportunities women have, and how it informs and leads to typecasting, while also recognizing Robbie wouldn’t have this opportunity if she were nonwhite. I’m trying really hard not to swear to accentuate just how good this article is.

When something is this well-researched, clearly voiced, intersectionally woven, and pointedly structured, it is important. It functions as crucial journalism as well as a clear-eyed piece of art unto itself. Read this, it is one of the best articles covering the industry of filmmaking that I’ve recently read.

If you enjoy what you’re reading, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

Bits & Pieces — Production Design, “The Curse of the Golden Flower”

Bits & Pieces is a new series that will focus on overlooked technical and cultural accomplishments in under-seen films.


Production Design, “The Curse of the Golden Flower”
Production Designer – Huo Tingxiao
Art Director – Zhao Bin

Costume Design – Yee Chung Man

by Vanessa Tottle and Gabriel D. Valdez

Upon its release in 2006, The Curse of the Golden Flower was the most expensive Chinese film ever made. Director Zhang Yimou, who began his career making sensitive dramas, was coming off two martial arts epics (Hero and The House of Flying Daggers) that had proved so successful they’d even garnered multiplex screens in the United States.


The Curse of the Golden Flower is an adaptation of Thunderstorm, a Chinese play published in 1934. Its closest Western comparison would be The Lion in Winter. Both concern a royal family’s internecine conflict, centering around a mother and father on the verge of war and the three sons vying for their affections and inheritance of the kingdom.

The plot is complex and seedy – it involves poison, insanity, assassination, and secret lovers. Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and Gong Li (Farewell My Concubine), often regarded as China’s best actors of their generation, star as the Emperor Ping and Empress Phoenix.

Most importantly, Golden Flower is among the most beautiful films ever created. The costume and set design are a synaesthetic’s dream come true.




The film’s accomplishment is in Zhang’s use of set design to translate opposing themes. The movie’s central sequence, for instance, involves one army massacring another in the Emperor’s expansive courtyard, filled with pots of golden flowers for the annual Chong Yang Festival. Bodies are clearly shown piled up, the courtyard a mess of blood and debris. With the manpower at the palace’s disposal, however, it’s the work of a few hours to clean up the bodies, replant the flowerpots in perfect lines, and carry on with the festival on schedule, pretending nothing had ever happened. All evidence has simply vanished.


To Chinese authorities, who had the ability to censor the film if they saw something they didn’t like, it was a moment that spoke to the power and importance of unity. The replanting of the flowerpots represents the country’s ability to continue on unscathed. Despite a long history of war and suffering at the hands of neighbors and Western powers, the sequence hints that China is an idea continually reborn, always meant to be. To enough of the authorities, the flowerpot sequence symbolizes China’s strength, destiny, and resiliency while glorifying its sheer manpower.

To Western audiences and many Chinese viewers, the moment spoke to the dangers of empire and censorship. The same sequence is a stark and shocking reminder about the dangers of centralized power and how easily voices of criticism are erased from history. The notion of a massacre so quickly covered up is something viewers idealistically (if not always practically) oppose. To many audiences, the flowerpot sequence calls out and criticizes Chinese decisions to jail opposing voices and make political opponents vanish.


In fact, the entire movie is shaped in metaphors that simultaneously criticize the very same power structure they reassure. The victor feels inevitable the entire film. Some audiences interpreted this as a show of strength, while others interpreted it as the inevitable horror of politics, an echo of imperialism in the modern state of things.

The original play, Thunderstorm, is about how wealth and class shame corrupt a successful Chinese family. It’s needless to say why it’s considered a classic in a country that is, at least in name, Communist. Zhang’s period approach to this story keeps this theme intact. For all surface intent, the story is about the futility and tragedy of rebelling against the norm. Throughout, however, Zhang’s design team undercuts and turns this message on its head. Rebellion may be tragic, but its act in Golden Flower takes everything meaningful away from the ruling class. It poses a China bitterly divided between an upper-class government rejoicing at the spectacle of its own power and a poisoned, strong-armed culture struggling to take charge of its fate. In the end, Golden Flower suggests this leads to mutually assured destruction.


For this alone, The Curse of the Golden Flower is a unique accomplishment in cinematic history. It’s overlooked as one of the best films of the last decade and is overshadowed – popularly and critically – in Zhang’s own canon by the stunning martial arts sequences of Hero and the operatic sensibilities of The House of Flying Daggers. Golden Flower may have some martial arts sequences, but it’s really a talky drama. In the West, we’re not used to devoting our viewing time to Eastern drama.

Golden Flower is a more valuable film than either of those others. It creates one of the most overwhelming senses of place seen in cinema. The images posted here are beautiful, but they have nothing on the film in motion.


In his earlier Hero, Zhang ends the movie with a character sacrificing himself for the unity of China. The sacrifice made censors happy, while it played as a tragic and disagreeable decision to audiences. It forced viewers to question whether the individual sacrifice, a fundamental concept of China’s Communism, was truly worth it. In Golden Flower, Zhang found a way to amplify that feeling, to make an entire film out of a Chinese classic that expands that bittersweet moment of doubt into a haunting, lingering thought that follows you out of the theater.

And they slipped it all past the censors. This is what a good design team can do.