You’d be forgiven for saying nothing happens in Vanishing Days, which feels like Roma directed by Bi Gan. This is a slow and contemplative work, functioning more like poetry than traditional narrative fiction. Depicting the coming-of-age of one girl as she comes into contact with the specter of death, it recalls the best of Chinese cinema in its thoughtful use of metaphor and inference. Multilayered and insightful, it rewards patient viewers in spades.
Set in Hangzhou, director Zhu Xin’s hometown, during a hot and humid summer, Vanishing Days sees 14-year-old Senlin having lost her turtle. No worries, as her mother tells her she can always get a new one. A smart young girl, she writes stories of a traveler on an airship, able to spot lakes and rivers as far as the eye can see. Her Auntie Qiu visits, currently suffering from the death of her husband, and soon the fate of Senlin and her Aunt intertwine in a mysterious fashion.
Art school graduate Zhu Xin is only 22 years old, yet his work — evoking contemporaries such as Bi Gan and Yang Chao, who’s Crosscurrent was also set along the Yangtze river — displays a maturity far beyond his years. Considering that at 22 I had only just finished university and had no idea what I was doing with my life, this is a remarkable achievement, even more so considering that this is no amateur effort. This is clearly an autobiographical work, displaying a clear fondness for the run-down furniture and broken television sets of home, and the endless tower blocks where he grew up. Likewise, the actors — all first-timers — help to give off a naturalist impression, as if Zhu Xin is merely weaving real people into his poetic gaze.
Revealing little directly through plain dialogue or action alone, Vanishing Days makes use of motif and allegory to speak about the impermanence of the human condition. It also requires you to pay close attention to choices in camera movement and sound design, such as how they recall earlier moments, and what they may mean in this new context. Sound from a previous scene — such as from rain and thunder – may occasionally play in a new scene without rain or thunder, providing an eerie juxtaposition that gives off the effect of memories being replayed in real time. Curious things double and double and double, all the while leading to the film’s subtle, yet heart-breaking conclusion.
Like in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, water is used as a metaphor both for life and for death. Lingering shots of lakes and rivers bind the characters’ fates together. But where Roma built up this idea very dramatically — literally having his character coincide with important events from history — Zhu Xin has a much subtler approach, slowly linking together various nonlinear strands in a visually rich fashion. Like many recent Chinese films, its chock-a-block with specific Chinese symbolism that make it a difficult work to fully comprehend, yet on a purely audiovisual level, it is still a highly satisfying experience, very much like Senlin’s turtle — moving pretty slowly, but still entirely sure of where it is going.