NYAFF 2017: Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned
The culture of internet film criticism is so caught up in a nostalgic rip tide, with shows and movies that evoke childhood favorites of Gen-Xers and Millennials, I feel like it’s strong enough to overshadow more inspired fare. Having said that, I’m filled with dread that something new and original such as Vanishing Time is going to bypass traditional consensus purely because it draws on themes of fantasy, science fiction, and coming of age without pandering to the style of what was before it. It seems like the neon-gothic cadences of Stranger Things, The Neon Demon, Ex-Machina, and Beyond the Black Rainbow are claiming on referential familiarity; that’s not to be reductive as Stranger Things, and Ex-Machina are great entertainment, but it’s hard to resist suspicions of the monkey-see, monkey-do inclination of entertainment.
Having gotten that out of the way, Vanishing Time is a casually conceived tale of big ideas in a tangible context; slightly heady and remarkably unpretentious, this is a coming of age story bolstered by a sense of mystical fantasy. 13-year-old Su-rin moves to an island town with her stepfather. There’s a disconnect between the two with the recent passing of her mother, and Su-rin’s stepfather Do-kyun seems occupied with his contracting/demolition work.
Something of a loner, Su-rin’s fascination with the supernatural and the occult brands her as an outcast in her new school, however, she finds solace with Sung-min, an orphan classmate, their shared sense of isolation makes them fast friends. When the two go exploring with some of Sung-min's friends, they find a small, mysterious cavern. Given their nature of curiosity, this little rabbit hole of discovery leads them to a pool of glowing water, illuminated by a neon green orb. Sung-min dives in and retrieves the egg. This reminds the local youngsters about a folktale of a Time Goblin, who can turn children into adults; adults to seniors and so forth. Su-rin returns to the pool to retrieve her lost hairpin and she emerges to find Sung-min and his friends vanished; the panic of their disappearance sends shock waves through the town. The authorities launch an investigation, Su-rin shares her story of the egg and the Time Goblin which of course is immediately dismissed as a child's proclivity for fantasy.
Vanishing Time faces its material with a straight face. Of course, this narrative has the inherent idea of duality behind it but when an adult version of Sung-min appears to our protagonist the story become much more substantial and extraordinary. The film takes an original direction in its grounded approach to its mystical folklore, instead of losing itself with segues of side characters and explaining its own mythology, Vanishing Time harnesses its thematic properties (coming of age, mystery, fantasy). Deliberating them without showy emphasis, and with strong characterizations.
The very mention of “magical eggs” and “Time Goblins” (I didn’t even know those were proper nouns) might sound like the stuff of popcorn movie fare but Vanishing Time is an unexpectedly intelligent movie that works on its own level. It feels brave because the film is walking a fine line of eschewing genre furnishings and exploring material commonly reduced to hand-me-down exposition and back patting nostalgia - we get a hint of coming of age and fantasy pictures but only by proxy.
There’s a recurring tradition in South Korean cinema, and it’s relatively consistent regardless of genre; their ability to tell a story doesn’t revert to traditional narrative beats and character arcs, you can’t tell which direction will be the next. Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned is a surprising and original movie that will hopefully get some traction with audiences this year.