“Five children go to the mountains; magically, one comes back a man,” is the given synopsis for the film, Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (Kor: 가려진 시간), starring Gang Dong-won and directed by Uhm Tae-hwa, which is being featured as one of the films from South Korea at the New York Asian Film Festival this year.
Soo-rin (Shin Eun-soo), a superstitious young girl, is brought to a new, rural city due to her step-father’s new job. At school, unlikely relationship blossoms between her and another classmate named Sung-min (Lee Hyo-Je), who reads and believes the superstitious posts on Su-rin’s blog. One day, the two of them, along with three of Sung-min’s male friends, head up to a mountain to watch some “fireworks” of the tunnel construction operation. One of the male friends end up turning around, but the other four continue on and find a tunnel. Inside, they nab a luminous egg and bring it back outside.
Soo-rin, realizing she has forgotten her hairpin in the cave, goes back in to find it. When she comes out, all three boys have vanished. One is found days later dead and buried at a beach, and the other two are nowhere to be found. Suddenly, a young, unkempt man in his late 20s approaches Soo-rin claiming to be Sung-min.
The portrayal of the frozen time the boys are stuck in is very visually appealing, as the film shows Sung-min and his friends become stuck in an immobile world from the moment they broke the egg. The film explores the world with them as they go around doing whatever they please, but as they realize they are stuck indefinitely, loneliness swiftly sinks in with the notions of death and suicide as time only continues to pass for them. When time begins moving again for them, Sung-min (now being portrayed by Gang Dong-won), who is the only survivor, has physically aged about seventeen years, and no one recognizes who he is.
The reason why I bring up the synopsis is that it doesn’t explain that the film delves into relationships rather than magic, namely utilizing the magical aging factor to highlight the strength of the relationship between Soo-rin and Sung-min. Nothing about the film is overly magical; instead, it feels melancholy and overly gritty, featuring elements of death and suicide despite its notions of magic. And after Sung-min gets older and comes back, the townspeople rejecting Soo-rin and police chasing Sung-min make the film all the more darker.
Instead, the relationship between Sung-min and Soo-rin is the key pillar that the story builds off of. The duo is able to understand and trust each other on a deeply personal level, and in some ways, despite Sung-min’s physical age, due to his years of isolation, it’s Soo-rin who is the grown up, doing her best to protect and stand up for Sung-min. The chemistry between older Dong-won and younger Eun-soo ends up being some of the best scenes in the film, with their interaction doing a fine job conveying the sadness behind the time they both lost and the hopelessness they both feel in a hostile and unwavering environment.
For the most part, Vanishing Time is an entertaining viewing experience. Sung-min’s love and willingness to sacrifice so much for Soo-rin is admirable, but that factor is never really tested, and their relationship throughout the course of the film never really changes, which brings up the question of how their relationship, especially considering Sung-min is in his early 40s by the end of the film, will progress. In some ways, the ending of the film only brings up more questions than answers.