There are points in a young person’s life which are defining, sometimes due to their inability to control what has happened. The films A Sunburnt Summer and Kindling present two vastly different experiences which have a commonality in their presentation of youth who are dealing with the impact a sexual encounter has placed upon their present and future. These films also share the benefit of production designer Yuelin Zhao who contributed her extraordinary talent to these films. Stories such as these require sensitive attention to elicit the emotions the filmmakers wish to impart, and to do so in a way that allows the audience to connect with the characters. Yuelin’s work on A Sunburnt Summer and Kindling is subtle in communicating tone and emotional state, never fully revealing how much psychology goes into her approach. Xinyi Zhu (Director of Kindling) proclaims, “I’ve worked with Yuelin Zhao on numerous award-winning projects of different types. She is a great communicator who discusses the story and characters with me and is great at building a world based on the visual characteristics of the film due to her strong visual arts background. Her abundant experience in reading, writing, directing and other forms of art-making also enables her to connect production design with story motivations and character psychology.”
A Sunburnt Summer stars Grace Chang (of BAFTA and Writers Guild of America award nominated film The Joy Luck Club) as a single mother of a teenage boy name Teddy (Nic Tom) who has been raped by the son of her boss. A deeply troubling scenario regardless of whom experiences it, the problems are compounded by the fact that this crime has been committed upon a Chinese immigrant family. While the merits of Yuelin’s prior films was the primary factor for her being selected as the production designer for this film, her own background as a citizen of China informed many of the choices that established a sense of authenticity for this story. Simply put, Ms. Zhao was the perfect person to serve as PD of A Sunburnt Summer. The sun logo found on the offending boy’s jacket and the sunflowers in his mother’s office, as well as other elements are cultural cues to power. There is a progression of the use of dark reds for Teddy throughout the film which communicates him “bleeding out.” Even the use of certain tea pots infers an arrogance on the part of certain characters in the film. While her use of these elements communicates a powerful message, Yuelin notes that she used negative space to create a mood as well. She relates, “Production designers usually like to fill up the frame, meaning that they love putting tons of set dressings and props in the space so that the space feels delicately designed. When designing A Sunburnt Summer, I wanted to be brave and leave some blank space. Empty walls tell the audiences a lot about the characters. In Teddy’s room, there are no picture frames on the wall; in Mia’s room, there are also nothing on the wall except for a wall clock. Only sunlight and shadow can be seen on the wall. Blank spaces naturally give people a depressing feeling, and the sunlight itself is the perfect artwork for this film.”
For her work on the First Look-USA Jury Prize Winning film Kindling, Yuelin wanted to create something which mirrored the heightened sensitivity and anxiety that accompanies a woman in a pregnant state. From blankets to curtains to almost every imaginable tactile surface, Yuelin concentrated on textures that empathized the connection a woman has to her body at this time in her life. A dark rusty rose color related intimacy and was implemented in the design at moments when Celeste and Piper, the two female friends at the center of this story, felt close to each other. Kindling is a tale of two friends who have become estranged and then are brought back together by an unplanned pregnancy. The film is heart-wrenching and painful, passionate and touching; it’s a perfect example of what Yuelin Zhao loves about her job. She imparts, “I always see film as a medium to speak out my voice and paint my imagination. A lot of my good friends gave up on their dream and chose a solid job that could gave them a stable life. I am still very proud of my choice right now and I’d hate doing something I don’t like for the rest of my life.”
2021 will see Yuelin as the production designer for such films as the horror/thriller Shadow from Allaway Pictures and Director Kamell Allaway, the online drama series Between 2AM and 3AM, and the drama The Sea We Have Never Seen.
Writer: Coleman Haan