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.