Imagine a good way to grieve

Over the history of cinema, a lot of movies have touched on the subject of grief, the loss of a loved one and what death really means.

For Niu Xiaoyu, a

young director from Hefei in East China's Anhui province, her own way of saying goodbye to her grandfather who left the world in 2017 has become a fairy tale-like movie bristling with imagination.

Virgin Blue, Niu's directorial debut, was released domestically on Nov 25, more than a year after the indie flick earned a nomination at the 74th Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland in August 2021.

Earlier this year, the movie also won the Spirit of Freedom award, which aims to honor experimental films with avant-garde aesthetics, at the 15th FIRST International Film Festival in Xining, Qinghai province.

Unfolding through a nonlinear narration that interweaves layers of dreams, the movie follows Yezi, a fresh college graduate, who returns home and spends a summer vacation with her grandmother. In an old apartment full of memories, the pair find that the deceased grandfather is seemingly back, albeit by taking the shape of objects and fantastic creatures, such as a lamp or an anthropomorphic bear, even a gust of wind. Gradually overcoming fear and grief, Yezi starts to accept what really happened and finds a way to understand love and death.

Some viewers comment that the movie, currently ranked 7 points out of 10 on China's popular review aggregator Douban, with its distinctive cinematography that manipulates light and shadow, reminds them of Taiwan art house icon Tsai Ming-liang and Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

However, Niu believes it's more the slow-paced and exquisitely photographed classics helmed by Taiwan director Hou Hsiao-hsien that have exerted the biggest influence on her cinematic creation.

When she was preparing for the admission exam of Beijing Film Academy, Niu — who now holds a bachelor's degree in animation and a master's in experimental film — was studying the art curricula with a tutor in Wangjing in Chaoyang district.

"Most of my classmates were older than me. We watched a lot of movies during our spare time. I had been obsessed with the movies directed by Hou. He was like a mentor, encouraging me to slow down and take a fresh perspective to observe the world," recalls Niu.

Born in 1993, Niu moved in with her grandparents at the age of 6, and studied at a local school in downtown Hefei that covered all grades from primary to senior middle, and specialized in recruiting talented children.

When Niu's grandfather passed away in 2017, she returned to the old apartment to keep her grandmother company during the summer.

"I had a lot of time to doze at home, and it made me more attuned to subtle things in the room," she says.

Immersed into her own imaginary world, Niu started to "speculate" that all such things, from a breeze blowing into the room to the slight variation in sunlight, might be a "sign" from her late grandfather, as she believed he was not willing to "leave" them.

It was not the first time she had such "weird" imaginings. In 2013, when an elderly neighbor passed away in her community, she was curious about the impact and consequence of a person's death. That year, she, alongside several friends, spent five days shooting a short film, which became the precursor to Virgin Blue.

Taking these things as its basis, Niu began to write the script for her feature film, interweaving her memories about Yuhuatang, a lake in a park near her home, and also a section of the moat that encircles the downtown area of Hefei. As an iconic landmark that draws many locals, varying from lovers yearning for a quiet dating site to urban explorers interested in so-called mysteries, the lake has generated a lot of stories, most of which take place during nightfall.

Throughout childhood to adolescence, Niu passed Yuhuatang on her way to school, triggering her bold and interesting imagination. That has been reflected in the movie, where Yuhuatang is featured as the home to "spirits" and "fantastic creatures".

Shot around Yuhuatang and in the apartment of Niu's grandparents, the filming took place between September and October in 2019, with the cast consisting of Niu's friends, relatives and members of the crew.

"My mother has been very supportive since I was young. After seeing that I struggled, but failed, to raise enough money for the production, she sold an apartment which was once purchased for me as a dowry," recalls Niu, adding that her mother is not rich and the apartment was almost all she could afford then.

Reprising her role from the 2013 short movie, also set in Yuhuatang, the feature casts Ye Zi, a close friend of Niu, as the college student Yezi, and Zheng Shengzhi, Niu's grandmother, as the protagonist's grandmother.

"When I was studying in second grade at my primary school, Ye was transferred to my school. We have grown up together and been friends for many years. She is a bit shy and introverted, and it took some time to persuade her to quit her job and act in the movie," recalls Niu.

In an effort to help Ye perform naturally and be more immersed in the character's inner world, Niu took a month to train Ye, asking her to write a diary and take 30 selfies, as well as taking physical exercise to improve her posture every day.

Unlike Ye, her grandmother, who was 77 years old at the time and suffered from a renal illness, was more willing to take the acting job, as she had previously worked as a Luju Opera actress and saw the movie as her own way of memorializing her late husband. "I felt quite grateful to my grandmother. She was in poor health and even had a fever during the shoot, but she never complained," says Niu.

At this difficult time, when Chinese cinemas are struggling, the movie, despite not performing impressively at the box office, has garnered praise from art house movie fans, with most of it revolving around its sincere endeavor to explore the right way to bid farewell to those we have loved, but lost forever.