Sydney Film Festival Review: Yellow Is Forbidden (China/NZ, 2017) is an intimate slice of fashion gold

Colours have different meanings. In Imperial China, yellow was reserved for the emperor. It was believed to be the centre of everything because it generated yin and yang. For fashion designer, Guo Pei it is a colour that has become a signature part of her colour palate. If you don’t believe us, you need look no further than Rihanna’s 2015 Met Gala dress that broke the internet. Yellow Is Forbidden is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that goes behind the seams to examine this fascinating artist and fashion designer.

This film is directed by Pietra Brettkelly (Maori Boy Genius) who wanted to turn her camera lens onto a strong, female artist. The pair had to overcome a language barrier as Pei speaks Mandarin and Brettkelly English and the result is an intimate look at Pei’s drive and ambition to be accepted into the world of haute couture. This is an extremely rare label and honour that is dominated by male, French designers.

Pei has had some thirty years’ experience in fashion and her works have been exhibited at art galleries and museums around the world. But at the same time she has had to face down detractors who have assumed that China is merely the centre of clothing knock-offs and mass production. In Pei’s case this is simply not true and in one telling scene the Irish milliner, Philip Treacy is shown applauding her uniqueness and telling her to continue on with her authentically Chinese designs.

This designer’s creations are absolutely stunning. They are hand-embroidered and can take years to finish. There is a lot of intricate work and attention to detail and while the beautiful cinematography captures some of this; you do get the sense that some things really need to be seen up close and in the flesh. This documentary’s ethereal soundtrack also helps create an expansive, fashion wonderland. It is unsurprising that Pei’s clientele can shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single piece. There is no price tag too large for this kind of high art.

This film includes interviews with Pei and her biggest supporter, her manager and husband, Jack Tsao. There is also a cameo from Wendi Murdoch. Brettkelly whittled down some 250 hours of footage into a slender 90 minutes to include important touch-points for Pei like the exposure that came in the wake of Rihanna’s wearing her dress, Pei’s important Legend show in Paris and her eventual invitation into the world of haute couture.

It’s all here but the presentation can be a little messy at times with the story jumping around through different ideas and themes (including one very candid scene with Pei’s elderly parents- with her visually impaired mother who can’t see Pei’s work and her father who was a former member of the military during the People’s Revolution). It is easy to get a little lost in this long ahem train of thought. But in spite of this, the film is still a fascinating look into this incredible icon and her contributions to fashion and style.

Yellow Is Forbidden is a celebration of the creativity, culture and history of Guo Pei and her influences. It is an intelligent look at her playful and artistic world. And if there was ever an embodiment of Spandau Ballet’s song Gold and its lyrics: “Always believe in your soul/You’ve got the power to know/You’re indestructible/Always believe in, because you are/Gold” it is this complex fashion designer and the highly detailed and lovingly human film about her.


Yellow Is Forbidden screened as part of Sydney Film Festival. Head HERE for more details.


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