“Things appear for a while and then they’re gone. One day, if I found out I had missed something I wouldn’t be surprised” according to the author of a mysterious science fiction tale told in intervals throughout Zhu Xin’s Vanishing Days (漫游, Mànyóu). An ethereal meditation on the dreams of childhood and the uncertainty of memory, Vanishing Days locates itself in one idle summer of an adolescent girl recreated through fragmentary images and the strange anxiety of losing your place in the map of the world as you find yourself not quite at home with yourself or others.
14-year-old Senlin (Jiang Li) is trying to keep herself occupied during the hot summer cheering up boring activities by doing them in roller skates, changing the water for her pet turtle after complaining of a stagnant smell she thought was coming from her father. Her adventures begins when she decides to follow him after he unexpectedly goes out, thereafter absent for the majority of the action. Senlin’s dad hikes into a nearby forest and has a sit down in a cave which we’re later told is pleasant and cool, but it seems as if he visits there often because he immediately starts talking to a boy who refers to him as father and is also named “Senlin”. The male Senlin (Lu Jiahe) mildly rebukes his father for lying to him, the waters are not magical after all and he doesn’t think he will be reincarnated.
Meanwhile, Senlin arrives home to find her father’s place taken by a visitor, her aunt Qiu (Huang Jing) whom she apparently knew in her infancy but doesn’t remember meeting. A melancholy middle-aged woman. Qiu explains to Senlin’s mother Caiqin (Chen Yan) that her husband Bo (Li Xiaoxing) has passed away after suffering some kind of kidney disease and that she’s decided to sell the remaining cargo boats they used to sail around the rivers of China.
Confused by her aunt’s presence and unexpected affection, Senlin soaks in her strange tale of rowing out to a deserted island with Bo where she explored a disused used house and he became somehow captivated by the landscape, barely noticing when they were almost struck by lightning after he suggested making off with an abandoned boat. During the journey back Bo went missing, later returning with the excuse that he had lost his shoes, but visiting the island years later after he had died Qiu found out from an old man that Bo had been standing entranced on a mountain as if trapped on another plane.
The plane is perhaps where Senlin eventually meets him, guided into a strange forest dreamscape where he later refers to her by the name “Hongqi” which means “red flag” just like the one she is always carrying around with her. Senlin begins to wonder if she is really “Senlin”, who the mysterious boy might be, and what her real connection is to the wounded Qiu who is always in someway leaving town. Senlin loses her turtle, but rather than look for it her mother’s advice is to buy another one, Qiu becoming emotional on the way home and suddenly asking Senlin to come and live with her but not to tell her mother about the invitation.
Like the dream, the science-fiction story is about someone recalling the summer before they got on an airship for two years, apparently not really missing anyone but surprised at the various ways the world has changed on their return. Is “Hongqi” meditating on the continued absence of “Senlin” or are they one and the same, perhaps figments of each other’s imaginations or manifestations of some latent anxiety? Spectres of death and loss linger throughout – funeral wreaths tracking anonymously into the building, a stabbing (of a funeral director), the turtle’s escape, Bo’s illness, the abandoned house on a lonely island, and the continued absence of Senlin’s dad. But Senlin’s strange dream odyssey ends up taking her back “home” rather than away from it, the red flag abandoned on a windowsill while the family is apparently repaired. Senlin may not be able to remember it clearly, but something has begun to shift and a choice made that seems to be to leave the past behind and let the ghosts go where they may, up into an airship sailing far above the rivers of China bound for other futures.
Original trailer (English subtitles)