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The Chinese city of Hangzhou is well-known for its UNESCO-endorsed cultural attractions, hi-tech hubs and as host city of the next Asian Games. None of this seems to matter to director Zhu Xin. In Vanishing Days, the 22-year-old first-time filmmaker has wrapped his bustling hometown in a surreal, trance-like aesthetic — a style that has become commonplace in Chinese independent cinema after the success of Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues.
Zhu transforms his city’s forests, caverns and islets into a stage on which characters weave in and out of their lethargic lives, shifting selves and delirious dreams. Shot in two intensive weeklong sessions spread across two years and starring a completely non-pro cast, Vanishing Days was made on a budget of just $2,500, making it one of the most inexpensive titles ever to unspool in Berlin’s Forum program.
While derivative in parts — and Zhu, to his credit, is candid in his production notes about his love for Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work — Vanishing Days marks the emergence of an artist with an audacious vision. More bookings at talent-scouting festivals should follow its bows in Busan and Berlin. It will soon compete for the Hong Kong film festival’s Young Cinema award.
Senlin (Jiang Li) is a restless teenager trying to while away the tedium of her summer holidays. When not struggling with a school essay she glides around her apartment on roller skates, looks for her missing pet turtle and sniffs at her father’s clothes or her mother’s cooking. The banality is broken, however, when her father (Luo Haiqing) leaves the apartment. Riding across town to a park, he walks into a subterranean cave and begins talking to a boy (Lu Jiahe) who, as it turns out, shares Senlin’s name and is the apparition of his dead son.
This episode foretells more opacity to come. Back home, the intrigue thickens with the arrival of Qiu (Huang Jing), a middle-aged woman who’s supposed to be Senlin’s aunt. Though she looks ordinary enough, she spews mystery at every turn. When a fish bone gets stuck in her throat at lunch, she says the fish must be seeking revenge for something she did in a past life; she regales Senlin with tales of her lover’s adventures across the waters and into the wild, and his abrupt death. After making her niece drink some “magic water,” she asks her to come and live with her.
Meanwhile, paragraphs of white handwriting appear on a black screen. At first it seems to be Senlin’s homework, but it is later revealed to be written by someone from Qiu’s past. As if searching for the truth of her aunt’s and her own identity, Senlin “wanders” (the Chinese title of Vanishing Days) into a “forest” (what the girl’s name means in Chinese) and has a series of small, strange visions, while Zhang Wei’s cinematography turns her white dress into a blazing halo.
Co-written by Zhu and Dai Ying, the screenplay constantly shifts between Senlin’s and Aunt Qiu’s rugged everyday reality (as when they witness a bloody crime) and their ethereal fantasies (for instance, the recollections of Qiu’s pastoral escape with her lover to an abandoned house on a deserted island, where a TV flickers endlessly). These parallel universes eventually collide when the two Senlins meet, but Zhu still isn’t handing out any keys to his riddle. Heightened by Zhu’s elusive editing and the sound design by Weerasethakul regular Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, the pleasure of the film lies in slipping and sliding along with the characters down the rabbit hole.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Midnight Blur Films, Midday Films
Cast: Jiang Li, Huang Jing, Chen Yan, Li Xiaoxing, Lu Jiahe
Director: Zhu Xin
Screenwriters: Zhu Xin, Dai Ying
Producer: Wang Jingyuan, Xiao Yantao, Zhao Jin
Director of photography: Zhang Wei
Production designers: Jin Jiacheng, Chen Xinjialian
Music: Tao Zhen
Sound: Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr
Editing: Zhu Xin
Sales: Parallax China
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