In both its beginning and closing sections, Vanishing Days has a sideways tracking shot, with the camera passing an apartment window where a red flag is stuck in a glass bottle. Both shots might be of the same day, or a childhood memory. This red flag, an everyday cheap object by the window, behind this the typical contemporary Chinese scenery of new high-rises continuing past the frame, becoming a default image for director Zhu Xin’s film.
14-year old Senlin (Jiang Li) has lost her pet turtle. In the opening shots she is looking for it in a dark wood. Her mother suggests buying a new turtle, similar to the old one. Senlin spends her summer holiday trying to write an essay for school, roller-skating around the apartment, and hanging around her parents. At the same time, Aunti Qiu (Huang Jing) comes to visit the family. The following narrative is less a logic-driven growing up story, but a weird journey, where reality, dreams and memories all wind up. The deceased son of the family becomes part of the search. Senlin’s father (Luo Haiqing) enters a cave where a youngster (Lu Jiahe) resembling the deceased son but carrying the name Senlin shows up. It is not even entirely certain if Senlin is the daughter any more – which might be the result of the growing up of the actress during the shooting process, which involved two week-long sessions conducted two years apart. Aunti Qiu brings her own share of mystical elements to the plot with each everyday episode, like a fish bone getting stuck in her throat, turning into a mystery. And are the paragraphs of writing appearing on the screen Senlin’s homework or from Aunti Qiu’s past, her memory of spending some time with her boyfriend in a shabby house by the water?
The film takes place by the river and the wood, and in a contemporary, worn-down apartment with a view to a suburban high-rise area in Hangzhou, where the director grew up. The actors are first-timers and the Zhu gets nice, natural performances out of them. The soundtrack, created by Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, is also innovative, with sounds from previous scenes popping up like memories in the characters’ heads. There is a little Edward Yang influence in the film, not to mention the feel of 1990s Japanese art-cinema, a bit of Hong Kong, Weerasethakul, and Bi Gan. Cinematographer Zhang Wei creates airy images, with long shots of Senlin in her white dress flopping like a balloon in the summer wind staying in the viewer’s memory after the film is over. And rarely has the feeling of summer heat been pictured this way, enhancing the characters’ hallucinatory state.
Zhu’s use of visual symbols, repetitive scenes and objects, and a soundtrack of deja-vu sounds reveal a literary approach to filmmaking. His studies at China Academy of Art show in the film. Those ingrained in Chinese use of symbols in modern literature and visual arts will surely get a lot out of the film outside of the minimalist storyline. The shots of Hangzhou, around the suburban high-rises, by the water, in the wood, are like those of our childhood, as remembered as an adult. Upon revisit you are not sure, if your memory is wrong, or if the place itself has changed. Vanishing Days has this same, slippery feeling, with the memories and expectations getting away just when you are almost touching them. With a sure, meditative hand, Zhu has created a small but artistically balanced and ambitious film on a mere $2500 budget.
Vanishing Day premiered internationally at Busan 2018 and Berlinale 2019, and will be soon competing for the Hong Kong film festival’s Young Cinema award. It suggests a bright future for the 23-year old director, whose next film is already in pre-production. Those who see Vanishing Days will surely wait patiently to see what Zhu creates with a bigger budget.