VIFF 2019: Vanishing Days

I didn’t enjoy watching Vanishing Days all that much. That’s too broad and too subjective to be of help to you, dear reader. Maybe, though, the film will be too.

Vanishing Days is one of those slow-moving, disjunctive arthouse thrillers that gets marketed with terms like “hypnotic,” “trance-like,” or “dream logic.” If you’ve seen Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives or Kaili Blues or Mulholland Drive, you’ll feel hip to a good few of its tricks. It’s the work of a 22-year old director who’s confident in his imitation, and it is, indeed, hypnotic. But I’m not sure the wake-up is worth the time.

The film sleepwalks through the life of Senlin, a young student who’s spending her summer holidays doing nothing in particular. In hazy, sun-drenched long takes, Senlin putters around her apartment and explores her neighbourhood in the city of Hangzhou with the sort of cheerfully pointless concentration that only a child can muster. For a while, she looks for her missing turtle, but her dedication to this task is less than steadfast. She roller-skates, which looks fun. The sound design is a slow symphony of changing atmospherics. The cinematography plainly but carefully captures the everyday, sun-on-concrete beauty of the city.

Eventually, Senlin’s father will disappear from the story, and an aunt will enter the household. We’ll start to realize that we know even less about this family than we thought—for one thing, people start to talk about another character named Senlin. And the breaks in the film’s already splintered chronology will grow more and more surreal.

One of the most engaging mysteries of Vanishing Days is the mysterious text that introduces new segments, breaking the film up like title cards. The text tells a continuous story, and our assumptions about whose story it is, and why it’s breaking up the film, slowly begin to shift. It’s a neat little jab at filmmaking conventions to destabilize our understanding of something so basic as a title card, and curiously, it’s this text that’s stuck in my head most since seeing the film. The story is an allegory in an allegorical movie, and yet it’s an intriguing narrative all its own.

I’m sure the poster and other marketing will give you a hint as to whether you’ll like this movie. Even for the type of film it is—and recognizing the achievements from a young director with a microbudget and an amateur cast—it’s closer to the middle of the pack than the top. There’s an ambitious voice behind this movie, and I’ll happily wait to see what director Zhu Xin does next. But frankly, you might consider doing the same.