Cecile, a widow still deep in the throes of grief, has become agoraphobic, unable to summon the courage to go outside. Though she remains immobilized in her home, she still indulges in her love of gardening and plants, a hobby she once shared with her late husband.
But when she receives a shipment of worms, the small and seemingly humble creatures have their own ideas of what to do. They open up a dark hole in Cecile’s floor, and soon all of Cecile’s belongings start to disappear into it, including the remains of her past life with her husband. Cecile must decide whether or not she can move forward and out of an untenable living situation, or remain stuck inside forever.
Writer-director Maegan Houang’s charming yet melancholic fantasy short is strikingly unadorned with dialogue, but it speaks volumes about the intensity of grief and how its powerful undertow can knock a person off-course, immobilizing them in the past.
By stripping the film of spoken words, the film shifts the attention to its delicately surreal images. Plants curl up the walls and cascade down from shelves in Cecile’s house; heaps of greenery festoon corners of the room, cradling knick-knacks and framing a shrine to Cecile’s dead husband familiar to homes in Southeast Asia. The botanical setting is both claustrophobic yet lovely in an almost Victorian way, but also rooted in Cecile’s cultural background and reflective of the accumulation of time and emotion since her husband’s death.
This mix of magical, cultural and poetic makes for images and camera movements that have a unique ability to captivate, as do the practical special effects and animation that Houang uses to bring the film’s magical elements to life. Rather than opting for a smooth seamless blending into reality, the effects seem slightly apart from Cecile’s reality, adding an uncanniness and charm to the fairy tale atmosphere of the film — as does a superlatively evocative score and sound design, which takes a page from the David Lynch playbook to create a sense of otherworldliness and dreamlike nostalgia.
Despite the film’s magical-realist elements, the powerful fable-like story is rooted in raw human emotion, one so powerful that it can immobilize someone in memories of the past. Grief’s resistance to moving forward is beautifully brought to life by veteran actress Kieu Chinh, most known to Western audiences for her role in “The Joy Luck Club.” She essays Cecile as someone who clings to the past out of a desire to cherish and maintain the love she bears for her husband, and the result is a deeply moving portrait of a difficult emotion to dramatize effectively.
Yet here is where the fairy tale elements of “In Full Bloom” pay off, as the black hole and the worms exert their unique powers to pull in all of Cecile’s belongings — and therefore her past — into the void, evoking the crisis that arises when one becomes stuck in grief. Like the Ministry of Magic’s door with a veil in “Harry Potter,” the hole exerts a peculiar, hypnotic power for both Cecile and the audience, functioning perhaps as a symbol of the pure unknowability of death.
The hole forces Cecile to finally make a decision and move onward, leaving us with a knockout of a final sequence — and a string of questions and musings — that echoes like a song resonating from an ethereal, mysterious void, which haunts us well after the music is over in this unforgettable, resonant film.