Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned
Korea (2016) Dir. Uhm Tae-hwa
We’ve all seen those films where time is temporarily frozen and much fun has been made out of it, but what of the serious consequences of such a phenomenon? Imagine being the one for who time carries on while everyone else is trapped in stasis and you return to a world where only you have changed?
14 year-old Oh Soo-Rin (Shin Eun-Soo) moves to an island town with her stepfather Park Do-Gyon (Kim Hee-Won) after the death of her mother. Fascinated with obscure science, Soo-Rin is shunned by her classmates, except for Sung-Min (Lee Hyo-Je). One day Soo-Rin, Sung-Min and two others Tae-Sik (Kim Dan-Yul) and Jae-Wook (Jung Woo-Jin) head off to the mountains where they discover a mysterious cave.
Days later and the kids are still missing with Soo-Rin being the only one found alive. Jae-Wok’s body is discovered soon after but there is no sign of the other two. Then, as Soo-Rin is wandering through the mountains, she is approached by a man in a hooded jacket (Gang Dong-Won) claiming to be Sung-Min.
The concept of this second feature and first mainstream film from Uhm Tae-hwa arguably has its provenance in a Treehouse of Horror episode of The Simpsons where Bart and Milhouse found a stopwatch that could freeze time and after breaking it found themselves growing up while everyone else stayed the same. Uhm allows himself the odd moment of levity but for the most part this is a thoughtful and provocative drama.
We’ll look at that provocative nature in a moment but first we must address how this miracle occurred and it does require suspension of disbelief as we naturally embrace a little fantasy. The kids find a small pool inside the cave at the bottom of which is a glowing green egg, which taken out of its home stops glowing. Soo-Rin lost her hairclip in the cave and goes back to retrieve while the boys outside decide, as young boys do, to break the egg.
Inside the cave, Soo-Rin feels a momentary tremor and comes out to find the others have gone; meanwhile outside, the boys have discovered everything has frozen – birds, trees, water, insects – and decide to make the most of this. Cue a montage of amusing hijinks with bodies, liquids, vehicles, books and anything not nailed down available for their amusement.
But Jae-Wook’s asthma takes its toll forcing Sung-Min and Tae-Sik to grow up. Via a notebook Soo-Rin and Sung-Min once created to share their thoughts with each other, Sung-Min is able to relate this flashback story and convince her of how he is. Convincing others however is going to prove harder – with the police on the trail, and Soo-Rin’s stepfather seeing what other see: a grown an hanging around with a teen girl.
This is where the provocation arises. Fans of Asian cinema will know that the culture of the Far East views the exploitation of teen female sexuality a little differently to us in the west. It is imperative to point out that Soo-Rin is not once exploited in such a way but it is easy for the audience to jump to the same uncomfortable conclusions that the characters in the film do when Soo-Rin and adult Sung-Min are together.
Again, nothing happens, not even a kiss, the most daring act being the pair holding hands after falling asleep but their relationship is based on a mutual attraction and fondness from before which never subsided. The dilemma for the audience is whether we can support this relationship when the pre-existing affection is essentially still between two 14 year-olds, but one is in the body of a 29 year-old man.
Suggesting that Sung-Min hasn’t matured is a little spurious but emotionally he hasn’t had anything to measure his lire against, so technically he is somewhat stultified on that front. And Soo-Rin is smarter than her age would indicate and knows her own mind, but with nobody believing her about Sung-Min and the story of the egg, the temptation to simply rebel is always present.
Uhm Tae-hwa’s script presents a compelling argument for both sides of the debate, although the sympathies of the audience will always lay with Soo-Rin and Sung-Min. We know that Soo-Min is in no danger but the reaction of the parents and police is also understandable, forcing us to put ourselves in their position. Uhm offers no judgement but does impart a powerful message about trust and understanding through this unusual scenario.
For the two central leads, Uhm made particularly wise casting choices. Remarkably Gang Dong-Won was 35 at the time of filming yet pulls off being a 20 year-old impeccably, channelling everything into making the emotionally stunted Sung-Min a rounded and enigmatic man with a pure heart in the wrong body crying out to be understood.
Perhaps more remarkably still is Shin Eun-Soo in her debut role, having beaten 300 other girls for the role of Soo-Rin. Delivering a flawlessly mature yet genuinely childlike and impetuously youthful performance, Shin can boast a star making turn in her very first role, establishing her ability to carry a film at such a young age in a captivating and assured manner. She drives the film and handles the emotional weight with aplomb.
Taking a huge leap as director in his second film, Uhm displays a keen eye for presentation, creating atmosphere and using the camera to tell a story visually, but he needs to work on pacing. The main plot doesn’t kick in until 40 minutes and the final act is protracted by a contrived slip into convention, but the confidence in balancing the sci-fi fantasy elements within the dramatic storyline is firmly in place ensuring a flowing narrative.
A heady mixture of romantic drama and sci-fi whimsy that addresses a challenging topic head on, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned defies the cynical expectations of its plot, striking a potent blow with its intelligence and grace.