“Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned” (가려진 시간) – 2017 NYAFF Review

Su-rin (Shin Eun-soo, left) and the older version of Sung-min (Kang Dong-won) in "Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned." (still courtesy of the New York Asian Film Festival)
Su-rin (Shin Eun-soo, left) and the older version of Sung-min (Kang Dong-won) in “Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned.” (still courtesy of the New York Asian Film Festival)

Um Tae-hwa’s second directorial effort has been categorized in film festival programs as a hybrid fantasy-drama, with a dash of science fiction tossed in. In some ways these genres are accurate, but they also overgeneralize the intersecting complexity of all the issues laying beneath the surface. While the central plot point in “Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned” focuses on time travel, the story also explores mental health, grief, death, crime, first love, and social stigma (notably of being a child orphan in Korea). A Disney movie this is not, and the consequences are more tragic than whimsical, with reality as spoken through the two lead characters interfering with the prying perceptions of everyone else who believe otherwise.

Teenaged Su-rin (Shin Eun-soo) moves with her stepfather to a remote island shortly following the death of her birth mother. Although the English subtitles do not address this, her constant usage of the term “ajusshi” (“Sir”) immediately indicates that the two are not close. His new evening job and her increasing isolation as an only child and self-described orphan trapped on an island give way to an overactive imagination.  Musings captured in online and softbound journals, Su-rin longs for a supernatural out-of-body experience that will transcend her misery. A like-minded soul in Sung-min (Lee Hyo-je) perceives a kinship with Su-rin, clinging to her like glue as they explore the abandoned ruins of the island. Curiosity leads them and a couple other friends to two co-located adventures within barbed wire borders: the possibility of witnessing the dangerous man-made explosions Su-rin’s stepfather has been hired to oversee at a construction site and the pursuit of a gleaming egg-shaped stone under water in a mysterious cave.  The former is quickly forgotten after Tae-sik, one of Sung-min’s pals, recalls a story from his grandfather that if such a cave appears during a full moon, entering it means a child becomes an adult, and an adult becomes an old man.

How does the egg factor in?  It’s a question that Su-rin will eventually be able to answer, but only after she re-enters the cave on her own to retrieve a dropped hairpin given to her by her late mother.  When she re-emerges, the three boys appear to have mysteriously disappeared.  What happens next comprises the more compelling part of the tale. A man claiming to be the older version of Sung-min (Kang Dong-won) tracks Su-rin down.  As the details of his journey unfurl, Su-rin must decide whether to believe that Sung-min’s breakage of the egg on that fateful day caused time to stop, jumpstarting his progression from childhood to adulthood in an alternate frozen parallel universe, with a return to the present only made possible through an undetermined passage of time.

The dynamic between the adult Sung-min and the teenage Su-rin – mirroring the real-life 20-year age gap between Kang and Shin – could have gone horribly wrong if misplayed during the resumption of a now-emotionally stunted relationship. But Kang knows how to capture the nuances of a man-child who, try as he might to bulk up on academic knowledge over his adolescence and early adult years that no living villager can confirm, is caught in an adult body remembering Su-rin as he did during that fateful night by the cave. Shin, in her first feature film, is resolute in her loyalty to the adult version of Sung-min yet like Kang also does not cross the line in her performance, offering a hand when comfort is needed. With no one to lean on but each other, the two depressed, misunderstood lonely souls retreat further into their shells as their versions of truth gradually become more emotionally layered and charged.

“Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned” screens at the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival on July 13 at 9 p.m. at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Actor Kang Dong-won will attend the screening and receive the Star Asia Award from the Festival.  For tickets, go to filmlinc.com.