1. The Inspiration
The creative process for “Bloom” has been a very personal experience for me. All the characters and the plots come from my own memories of the past. From the very beginning, I wanted to create a non-linear film that flows freely like a person’s mind – this idea was strongly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Wild Strawberries”.
During the winter of 2016, I was staying in New York City to finish up post production on a short film that I also directed. It was snowing, and I had gotten news that my lover from my time in college had flown in from Indiana to celebrate New Years. Although we never ended up seeing each other, even just the message of her arrival made me miss the time that we had together.
Since then, I found myself constantly indulging in my past. Those memories would slip into my mind quietly and unconsciously, when I was waiting in the subway, reading in a cafe, or in my dreams.
I knew I would never be able to travel back in time, but eventually I realized that I could use art (in my case, film) to preserve the most precious moments in my life. Thus, “Bloom” was born.
2. The Script
It was a warm evening in the spring of 2017. After collating all of my thoughts and ideas, I sat down at my computer and created a new document titled “Sui Yi”. That title, in Chinese, translates to “the fragments of memories”. The main reason why I chose “Sui Yi” was because every part of the story and the characters were borrowed from various pieces of my memories. I also wanted to edit the film in a non-linear way: showing each memory piece by piece, which is exactly how our minds read memory. Eventually, I decided on the title “Bloom” as a metaphorical translation for the title.
The approach I used to write this script had been vastly different from any previous scripts I had written. By listing out all of the memories that had tenderly touched me in the past and running through a tremendous amount of possible combinations of those memories, I would challenge myself to find the connections between all the memories. I wanted to compose a story with the aim to diminish the feeling of “telling a story” to create a more unique and refreshing experience for the audience.
Since the beginning, there was this one idea I had become extremely obsessed with. I wanted to create a place where Mu Ke, the main character, could meet his young self and share stories with each other. I wanted the place to be bright, serene, and dreamy. By creating the beach scenes, I solved a major concern of mine: how can I unfold the memories in an interesting way?
I wanted the beach to be an important theme throughout the whole film. And by opening with it, I wanted to end with it as well. We conclude the film with little Mu Ke meeting a little girl, just how he met with adult Mu Ke in the very beginning. Little Mu Ke asks the girl “Who are you? How did you get here?” She replies “Many people come to this place. My name is Songyu.” From then on, little Mu Ke encounters all the people from his past. Even the flower that had died in his classroom can be seen in full bloom in this beach.
I wanted the end to be bittersweet. Throughout Mu Ke’s story in this film, he eventually understands how to deal with all the painful farewells he had experienced. Nevertheless, he chooses to refuse to live a life like that. Instead, he finds his own solution to dealing with farewells, and instead of fully accepting a farewell and moving on, he decided that he’d rather live like a naive child in his own world through his writing.
After completing the script towards the end of March in 2017, I returned to China to start pitching the project to numerous production companies in Beijing. Unfortunately, the outcomes had been very disappointing. On top of that, I started having my own doubts and complex feelings about the script: it felt unfinished, and missing something in its core.
It wasn’t until January of 2018 when I had a revelation. The short film that I directed in New York had been selected to a film festival in Los Angeles, so I booked a small apartment to stay in for the event. As soon as I stepped into the apartment, I was shocked by how familiar the place seemed to me. The scent of the place gave me a sudden rush of nostalgia as I began to feel myself living in the apartment that my lover and I had lived in our college town. As soon as the film festival in LA ended, I booked a flight to Bloomington, Indiana with nary a plan.
Before meeting her, I decided to revisit all the places that we had been to together. One of the most memorable places was Monroe Lake. It was a vast body of water which, when standing on its shores, looks as endless as an ocean. I suddenly realized why I was so obsessed with the beach and ocean portion in my script; the ocean in my subconsciousness is just this lake that I had been hiding away deeply within my memory. From there, I discovered that all the impulse and passions of writing this script came from the purely stunning feelings that I had for my lover.
After seeing her again, I spent the next few months doing an extensive re-write of the script, paying particular attention to the relationship between Mu Ke and his love interest in the film, Songyu.
It wasn’t much longer until I received news in May of 2018 that a production company in Beijing decided to produce the newly revised “Bloom”. I couldn’t have been happier when the producer, Ali Yang, told me that he had spent the entire day reading and re-reading the script that I sent him. He loved it. “Bloom” began its stages of pre-production.
The production company Ali was a part of provided many benefits. They had a full outfit and network of talented young filmmakers with an impressive list of previous credits under their belt already. With most of the positions already filled with people from the production company, I was able to focus my energy in finding the heads of department. It wasn’t easy, as our budget was rather limited, we were working with a very strict schedule, and had many distinct locations. I decided I also wanted to maintain a strictly “Western” style union shoot. A lot of Chinese film productions are extremely difficult with overtime, with many shoots consistently going way over 12 hours per day. I hired my 1st AD, whom I met during my time in New York and who I worked with closely very often and was fluent in Chinese, with the intention of keeping all of our days manageable to keep morale up.
My original choice for cinematographer had to cancel due to a major issue, and time was running out. We had a firm plan to shoot starting mid-August, but it was already July with nobody to fill the DP position. Fortunately, the 1st AD had a connection to someone she’d worked with, and within two weeks, my DP friend Joey Wang had his passport visa expedited and flew from Houston, Texas to Beijing with less than 3 weeks before the start of principal photography. My gaffer, who himself is a cinematographer, was fluent in English and Chinese, and my worries for language issues disappeared, and I felt relieved that we had established a great team in such a short period of time.
During the scramble to find the remaining heads of departments, Ali and I were doing intensive research on locations. Ali was incredibly helpful in establishing connections to people in the Anhui Province in Southern China – an area known around the world for its stunningly beautiful landscapes.
We eventually acquired permission to shoot at the top of the great Mount Huangshan, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. We also obtained the permission to shoot at the beautiful Lake Taiping – famous for its strikingly clear blue waters. Hong Village, one of the most famous ancient rural villages in China, also gave us permission to use their facilities for our shoot. I fell in love with these locations, not only because they all have rich historical values, but they are absolutely beautiful and had a kind of an “isolated” and “sweet” feeling that I’m familiar with.
When it came to hiring the actors, I wanted people who could be a reflection of my thoughts and actions during the times in my memory. One particularly lovely memory was of my homeroom teacher when I was in elementary school, Ms. Ye. After I had graduated, she left the school to teach Educational Theatre. Not only did she provide the inspiration for the film’s Ms. Ye, but she also assisted in casting all of the children actors. She told me that she was very happy that I named the character after her: the film became a special way of “farewell” to the time of her teaching me and my fellow students in elementary school. She then also told a story of a treasured memory that she had during that time:
It was an autumn day, and she was teaching Chinese as usual. Suddenly, it became very windy outside. Along with the sound of wind, the sound of the fallen leaves became louder and louder. We all turned our heads, looking outside. The golden leaves fluttering in the wind outside was so beautiful that she decided to pause the class and took everyone outside. We spent the remainder of the time running around, jumping, and playing under the trees and the swirling leaves, purely enjoying this moment.
This romantic memory eventually became the most important images in the “farewell” sequence in this film.
5. Principal Photography
During the two and a half weeks Joey was here, we spent the majority of the time on a final location scout to all the places we’ve locked down. We also spent a large amount of time revising the entire shot list and coming up with new floor plans for every single scene. We took extra care in making sure that all of the scenes with the children were as planned out as possible.
Most of the children were ages 6-8, which meant that our time spent with them had to be incredibly efficient, despite the fact that we were working with, well, children. The ballet and taekwondo scenes were the most worrisome, as many of the children had very little experience with those concepts. The location had zero air conditioning and we were shooting in some of the hottest months of the year. I constantly worried that the children would give up at some point, however I was pleasantly surprised when they all did a fantastic job without complaining at all.
The last two days of filming were at the top of Mount Huangshan. It was definitely the most physically challenging endeavor for all of us, seeing as how we had to hike over 300 pounds of camera equipment, food and water up a steep 3 mile trail comprised of over 60,000 steps that even people carrying nothing have difficulty with.
We started the climb in the afternoon. After spending hours knocking our shins around with large, bulky equipment cases, climbing in the dark of night with only our phones to light our way, and taking long water breaks in between, we finally reached the hotel near the top of the peak late at night, around 10PM. Seeing that we needed to capture the sunrise in this scene, and the fact that the peak was still another half an hour of climbing away, we had to get up early at 3AM.
A major worry was the weather. Mount Huangshan has a reputation for being completely covered in fog with extremely limited visibility in the mornings. The hotel staffed informed us that there was only a 0.1% chance to get completely clear views of the surrounding mountaintops and the “sea of clouds” below us in this season. It must have been our lucky day, because when we set out to climb the final portion of our journey, everything was clear.
The whole ordeal was more than completely worth it. When we reached the peak, the most dazzling view appeared before us. We saw not only a sea, but an ocean of soft, fluffy clouds blanketing the world below us, with the iconic peaks of the mountain range cutting cleanly through. Even though it was almost freezing up on top of the peak, most of the crew sat outside silently, just taking in the view while we waited for the official sunrise.
We were able to obtain two gorgeous scenes from the hike up. Not only did we get the dazzling sunrise, but we also shot the same scene but with the gorgeous sunset in the background. My plan was to edit this scene with two versions. The first half of the dialogue took place during the sunrise, and the second half took place during the sunset. The purpose was to convey a feeling that the conversation between Mu Ke and Songyu has been constantly happening. It increases the tension by putting their relationship in more danger.
As soon as we wrapped on the mountain, we hiked back down and immediately started our wrap party. During which, Ali, and another producer, Leo Yuan, expressed that this production had been the happiest and most fulfilling one in their entire 10+ years in this industry. After the wrap party, we all said our farewells, as most of the crew went their own separate ways.
During the return trip to Beijing, I had the feeling that we would probably finish the post-production very quickly, considering everything had been so smooth. However, the worst was yet to come.
During pre-production and principal photography, I had a very clear image on how to cut the film, so I began to edit as soon as we got back to Beijing. A devastating issue rose up quickly. The feedback from almost every production company this film was sent to said the same thing: they didn’t understand it, and if they didn’t understand it, the audience won’t either.
As the writer and director, I probably have unconsciously edited out lots of necessary information while adding in the ones that the audience probably doesn’t care about. I didn’t want this film to be a straightforward A to B to C story. I was at a crossroads. A lose lose situation even. If I chose to edit down and dilute the film, audiences might overlook the film. If I tried to keep pushing the film as it was, I might jeopardize my reputation and the faith of the production company who put money into making this.
Luckily, a good friend of mine who works with a very experienced editor in Taiwan made the connection, so I was introduced to Mr. Hsiao Ju-Kuan, who had edited Chinese cult classics like “Three Times” by Hsiao-Hsien Hou and “Beijing Bicycle” by Xiaoshuai Wang and many other beautiful films.
I met up with Mr. Hsiao in hopes that he might provide some insight on how to reorganize the film to keep the original themes and feeling of the script. Our meeting ended up starting from 3 in the afternoon until 11 late at night. Not only did he patiently watch my film, but he came up with a plan to re-edit it. Once I got back home from the meeting, I put his ideas in action and indeed, the film was surprisingly smooth. As soon as I could, I persuaded Ali and the production company to hire Mr. Hsiao to officially edit the film.
While I spent time with Mr. Hsiao, I explained to him a lot about what each shot conveyed and how I wanted to use them. It was almost like he understood what I wanted even better than I did myself, and the result was a much more clear, much more emotionally charged film. Finally, I had a film that flows freely like a person’s mind, like I had always wanted.
Besides the edit, the choice of music was also to point out the fact that the majority of the film is composed of Mu Ke’s past memories. I wanted the music to play a part in reinforcing this idea as well, so lots of classical music were used in this film.
I think it’s quite common in Asian families that the parents are extremely strict to the kids about their academic grades and school life. Many of us have been encouraged (or say “forced”) to learn a music instrument like piano or violin when we were little. As a consequence, lots of classical music, especially Bach’s music has become a part of the memory of our childhood. Even now, whenever I hear Bach, it reminds me of my childhood. I hope this choice of music will also resonate with the audience who have similar experiences as I do.
Finally, “Bloom” was completed on September 16, 2019. There had been a number of frustrations and difficulties that I had to overcome to finish the film. And there were moments that I really felt hopeless. Without the helps and supports from my dear friends, this film will never happen. When the film is finally presented in front of my eyes — what started out in the winter of 2016 as a way to preserve the most precious moments I had has turned into a whole new journey which has created dozens of new memorable moments that I shall treasure forever.