Warning: Spoilers Below.
Throughout her prolific career as a music video director, Los Angeles based filmmaker Maegan Houang has explored a wide range of dark fantasy topics with her uncompromising direction. But while videos like “Chatroom”, “Happy”, and “I Can’t Be Your Superman” each tackle different, very real threats with bizarre twists, there’s a common underlying theme that has since become one of Houang’s trademarks.
Cut to the tune of the beat, the threats in Houang’s videos are usually coded male (a Manson-like figure, an unfaithful husband, and a group of thugs) and don’t show their true nature until the climax of the film. Her films closely align itself with the female perspective–in Houang’s world, it’s not until her complacent female protagonists are backed into a corner that they have no choice but to break free and fight back. Houang’s storylines are also often malleable–conforming to the rhythm with ease. What makes her videos great is the fact that although the stories are her own, they’re expertly worked into the very fiber of the song that she’s making the video for. It’s surprising how often Houang’s burning horror works within the context of these different genres again and again.
But in her debut short film, In Full Bloom (2019), Houang is completely unrestrained from the confines of her soundtrack–even breaking her own formula to create something that is undeniably, completely her own.
In Full Bloom, starring Vietnamese American actress Kiều Chinh (The Joy Luck Club, 1993), tells the story of a woman who doesn’t seem to have much. As an “agoraphobic hoarder [who] doesn’t leave her house,” Chinh’s unnamed protagonist finds solace in gardening indoors next to her vintage radio and the photos of her loved ones. Though she lives a seemingly lonely life, Chinh’s character is at peace. She goes through her day nurturing her plants and giving them life. However, when she orders a box of worms from the outside and invites it into her home, chaos follows. The worms rip open a giant hole in the ground, disrupting our protagonist’s cozy, yet disorganized world.
At only 10 minutes long, Houang’s film is puzzling and enigmatic, and quickly establishes a melancholic tone thanks to the contributing score of New York musician Rob Rusli (OHYUNG). Like the music videos that Houang has been so accustomed to directing, In Full Bloom expertly uses a keen sense of sound design to evoke polarizing feelings of tranquility and mystery. Chinh also plays the part of the protagonist with care, subtly embodying the main character’s indescribable grief with a muted terror.
But for anyone looking for answers, you likely won’t find any. In Full Bloom is devoid of any dialogue and should be taken in as a mood piece. At the end of its trippy dive into the protagonist’s apprehensive headspace, there’s no real explanation for anything that happens. Houang’s film could best be described as Lynchian, with all of the elements of fantasy horror that psychologically intrigues. It’s one of the most haunting, innovative short films that I’ve seen–one that could easily appeal to horror and narrative fans alike.
Unlike her other works, In Full Bloom is also centered around an intrinsic, almost cosmic, sort of fear. The hole that the worms create isn’t laced with malice–in fact, it simply exists. Nothing about the hole threatens the protagonist–Chinh’s character even has the chance to leave but ultimately doesn’t. That’s where the real terror comes from.
In the end, there’s a very humanistic curiosity that drives us. Maybe it’s that curiosity that ultimately draws her in. What’s at the other end of that hole? Death? Destruction? Heaven? Or worse, maybe even nothing. It then makes sense that Chinh’s character, who has had everything taken away from her, jumps straight in. After all, there’s nothing holding her back.
When you come face to face with the unknown, you can either cower in fear or take it head on. Perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all. Houang puts you face to face with it and dares to ask — “What would you do?”
You can watch In Full Bloom at Short of the Week, where it premiered on June 26, 2019.
In Full Bloom was screened as part of the 2019 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF).
Li-Wei Chu is a recent graduate from UC Davis who majored in Cinema and Digital Media who also briefly studied film at Queen Mary, University of London. Li-Wei is obsessed with horror films (especially the ones that give him nightmares), films from East Asia, and really, any film that makes you stop and think.
He loves talking about film and indie music with others. He’s also a record collector and cross-stitches when he has free time. In the future, he hopes to be able to write about film and wants to find a job in the film industry that can support his record buying habits. Maybe one day he’ll also be able to play the guitar.