The first of four feature docus (under the banner title “Tales of West Street”) about an old neighborhood on the verge of gentrification in Dujiangyan, Sichuan province, “The Vanishing Spring Light” observes the final spring in the life of struggling matriarch Grandma Jiang. The quotidian giving way to death’s profundity is the real subject of this effort from Canadian-based filmmaker Yu Xun, and it comes across with enough impact to justify the pic’s string of fest prizes, which will set it up for a good worldwide tour and select tube sales.
Spare and unsentimental in his approach, Yu patiently (and inevitably for some, too slowly) takes in Jiang’s declining health as her family members often indulge in spats and emotional outbursts. The 75-year-old woman is introduced after having suffered a near-fatal fall, triggering a stroke; she’s still quite alert and verbal, and smokes like a chimney, but the strain of taking care of her is wearing down her daughter-in-law Xiao Da, married to Jiang’s only son, taxi driver Qian-hong.
Jiang spends much of her time on Dujiangyan’s West Street, fronting the home she bought in 1960. The opening graphic informs that the street is being readied for massive urban renewal, and its age is reflected in the neighborhood’s largely elderly population, congregating at the (illegal) mahjong parlor in Jiang’s home which Xiao manages.
Yu and editor Gu Tao slow the pace as Jiang’s health wanes, with shots sustained at a length that don’t always benefit the film’s full effect. At the same time, the director’s lengthy bedside conversations with Jiang yield such fascinating details as her admission that she’s “a would-be Buddhist,” more concerned about death than a genuine Buddhist might be.
Yu’s clean, sharp HD lensing is incredibly intimate, given the sensitivity of the material, which is borne out by a lack of music.