BIFF 2018: Review of “Vanishing Days”

Vanishing Days

A film by Zhu Xin

A daughter and her mother sit listlessly in a small room in a nondescript city apartment building. We hear conversations but they are obviously not important to young Li Senlin. then the father announces that he is going on a business trip. Something about his voice tells Senlin that she should worry about him. Perhaps it’s the unpredictability of the weather, which will soon become monsoon season. She puts on her roller skatesand follows him out on to the street calling after him. She follows him to a public water fountain, then suddenly falls down, disappearing from the screen.


That’s the opening sequence of the film, and it tells us that what we see is less important than what we don’t see. Things become more strange when Aunt Quiqui makes an unplanned visit to Hangzhou. She tells a story about a time when she travelled to an island with her husband Bo and she experienced strange events. This is when the film’s plot becomes less concerned with what happened and looks at what might have happened. The present events are related to the past that the Aunt relates to Senlin. When she finds that her turtle has gone missing, another scene shows a boy and his father in a cave where they find strange inscriptions on the wall.One of the boys holds up a turtle shell? Could it be the same turtle that Senlin couldn’t find in the apartment?

The director has said of the film that he loves to use water, because it has “such a painterly element.” He is right about that. The thing about water is that it’s rarely still. It’s often opaque and you can’t pin it down. This is to say that the film is also hard to explain. IF you come to this film expecting some clear answers, you will walk away disappointed. We never see the murder that is explicitly mentioned, only the mundane details that are passed between neighbours.

When we are children, we are at the whims of adults. Young Senlin would love to be somewhere with her father, but instead she has to stay inside with her mother. Her freedom is limited further by eating food she doesn’t enjoy, and even her chopstick use is sanctioned All she can do is write her essay, which describes a dangerous journey by air. They are told intermittently though subtitles and explain the events of a trip by air balloon which is threatened by bad weather.

Much of the surroundings are mundane, precisely because for a child, the things that you can see around you are on the whole, terribly bland and nondescript. Even the murder is no more or less interesting than what the characters eat for dinner.

I had questions about the film which I couldn’t answer. The film had no ending, perhaps because there are no real endings in life either. It’s not perfect and I wish the film had been more clearly worked out so we could get a firmer sense of resolution for Senlin.

Zhu Xin made this film when he was 21, after learning to make films at advertising school. I can see the young director using these themes of disappearance, confusion and really creating a powerful cinematic style. For now he can be proud of a confident first film and a cast dedicated to making his visions come to life on screen.

Film review: Leto (Summer)

A struggling punk rock band in communist Russia make music about their experiences and reach musical success.

The band are from Russia, where punk is seen as a serious threat to the values of comradeship and socialist order. But that is not really the purpose of this film, as it deals more with the basic concerns of an aspiring rock band.

Lead singer Mike has the Johnny Rotten sneer down to a T but the band are struggling to be taken seriously. He’s married with a kid and still living in an upstairs apartment where the band try to practice their songs (when they aren’t being shouted at by the neighbours).

Things change for them when they are approached by two younger musicians the beach after playing a concert. Viktor, a Korean-Russian (although his heritage is not really commented on) really likes the band and offers to join them.

It’s touching the way they play together and how the more experienced musicians help nurture Viktor’s talent.

AS the band’s musical talent develops, they start to play better and with more focus, and Viktor adds a poetic dimension to their simplistic lyrics. The film is shot in black and white and in colour. The black and white photography recalls similar fictionalized accounts of musicians such as Control, which was about Ian Curtis and Joy Division.

The main problem I have with this film is that it doesn’t really add up to much. A few scenes show the raw power of punk, when a member of the audience exhorts everyone in their seats to stand up. But the rest of the film slows things down considerably.

It’s so freewheeling and loose, which I understand because life as a rock band I s messy. Mike has a baby with Natacha but he doesn’t spend all his time with her.There’s an attempt to create some drama when Natacha becomes attracted to Viktor, but it’s so underwhelming. It should be a big deal, but somehow it’s not. The film is just a bit too long and some scenes are really boring. As an example, why do we need a scene where the band are in a recording studio talking about disco? And there is a weird post recording session party where an old singer starts to And why do they never talk about their lives, or what inspires them to make music?

The best songs in the film are ones we already know: such classics as The Passenger, Psycho Killer, and A Perfect Day, to name just three. There’s nothng wrong with taking inspiration, but this film tries to include so many musical styles that it seems like a potted history of seventies and eighties music.

When it comes to films about rock stars, there are so many clichés that must be avoided. Or there are those films which go so far to show the reality of music that they become a parody, like Spinal Tap. This film doesn’t really go that far, but it’s a bit stylized, too ideal. The best scenes are when the people on the street burst into performances of internally know punk songs, followed by the disclaimer “this never happened”. It’s a lament for the lack of freedom in a politically oppressive country. The message is, these songs are loved by everyone: rock music is the people’s politics.

It’s all perfectly well played, but there are no great surprises.


Leto (Summer) is showing at BIFF.




Busan International Film festival: Killing

Masterfuly directed by Tsukamoto, Killing manages to make a Shakespearean tragedy in Japan that lasts under 2 hours. It’s an austere, harshly beautiful film about what it takes to survive in difficult surroundings. After a mesmerizing opening where we watch gleaming samurai sword forged out of glowing embers, we meet the characters whose lives will be overwhelmed by the events of the story.

The setting is rural Japan during the Edo period. Mokunoshin Tsuzuki is a samurai with no master, but he maintains his swordsmanship by sparring with Ichisuke, a farmer’s son. Just from the way the farmer’s sister Yu’s looks disapprovingly at Tsuzuki, we can sense the danger that will soon appear, even though the film begins during a time of peace.

An older samurai master arrives in the village, impressing the younger men with his skill at fighting. He is laidback and restful, seeming to fear nothing. He soon recruits the young men, much to Yu’s dismay, who alone can see the violence and death that will inevitably descend on their quiet village.

The ronin’s arrival is followed by a rampaging gang of outlaws. While the samurai follow a code – and look clean and handsome – the robbers are filthy, dressed in rags and lacking any element of civility.

The violence comes fast but there are moments of beauty, as when the young men watch fascinated as a ladybird climbs up a tree, “leading to heaven,” as Tsuzuki puts it.

After the outlaws attack the farm, Ichisuke challenges them, and is beaten badly. But this leads to even worse violence, which is filmed in rapid cutting, blood-spraying action. After Ichisuke is murdered, the younger samurai vows to avenge his death, even as the older samurai advises against it. The sister howls in despair to match the pounding soundtrack, and the killing of the title begins. I said that the story was Shakespearean, which is not overstating things. But the film’s revenge element made me remember the Clint Eastwood classic “Unforgiven.”

Killing is showing as part of the Gala presentation.