He is like an inverse Rip Van Winkle for K-Pop kids. For fifteen years, Sung-min grew older while everyone else stood still. Tragedy will be inevitable when he finally rejoins the world around him—especially since this is a Korean film. Think of it as Stand By Me crossed with Il Mare. That probably sounds terrible, but the elements come together surprisingly nicely in director-screenwriter Uhm Tae-hwa’s Vanishing Time: A Boy Who Returned (trailer here), now playing in New York.
Oh Su-rin (she prefers Park Su-rin) has had a hard go of it lately. Mere months after remarrying, her mother was killed in a car wreck. Still, processing her grief, she has moved to a remote provincial island with the step-father she hardly knows. Despite her trouble making friends, she attracts the attention of Sung-min, a spirited classmate who lives in the local orphanage. Their friendship steadily evolves into puppy love, until destiny intervenes.
One fateful day, Su-rin accompanies Sung-min and two of his bratty friends on an ill-advised excursion into the woods. There they find a glowing egg-shaped object, which stops time for Sung-min and his two pals when they break it. Having returned to the cave to retrieve a dropped hair pin, Su-rin is exempt from the egg’s effects. Initially, the time-stoppage is fun for the kids, but it gets awkward when they realize some items do not work outside of normal time—like asthma inhalers. After aging fifteen years, normal time restarts for Sung-min, but as a strange sad-eyed adult claiming to be one of the three missing children, he becomes the chief suspect in their disappearance. The still twelve-year-old Su-rin also faces ostracism and possibly worse danger for helping him.
This really is the sort of eat-your-heart-out, done-over-by-unjust-karma movie the Korean film industry truly excels at. You also have to give Uhm ample credit for side-stepping the potential creepiness of their sudden age differential. Basically, they go from handholding crushes to big brother-little sister, more or less. There are no red flag scenes, but there are generous helpings of angst and regret.
Young teen Shin Eun-soo (reportedly now a K-Pop star in training) is just terrific as Su-rin. Her range and subtle expressiveness are absolutely remarkable. Lee Hyo-je is also unusually charismatic as young Sung-min, making his eventual disappearance from Su-rin’s life so dashed heart-breaking. Those kids make a ridiculously cute couple, but Shin still develops some poignant chemistry with model-turned-romantic-lead Kang Dong-won (doing some of his best work). However, what really makes the film are veteran character actors Kim Hee-won and Kwon Hae-hyo as the flawed but very human step-father and lead police investigator, respectively.