New Directors/New Films Festival review: In ‘Short Vacation,’ the end of the world is just the beginning
If you knew that the number of photos you could take on your phone on any given day was limited, and that instead of deleting and retaking a photo with poor light or focus, you had to wait and try again some other day, “You would put more care into taking each photo, right?” That’s what the teacher overseeing the photography club that transfer student Si-yeon (Seol Si-yeon) has just joined assumes, instructing his middle school students how to look through a disposable camera viewfinder, click the button for a shot they can’t instantly judge, and turn the noisy dial to prepare for the next opportunity. In Kwon Min-pyo and Seo Han-sol’s coming-of-age film Short Vacation, the action is interspersed with these actual photos taken by four middle school girls, imperfect like all disposable camera fare: A finger covering the corner of the lens, a cat sniffing too close to the camera and blurring everything, that yellow-brown tint drowning out the image because the exposure can’t be adjusted. The girls aren’t always sure their photos are good enough, or appropriate for the given assignment, and this uncertainty is at first daunting. But when your whole adolescence is framed by documenting the world around you on your phone, like your life is itself a photo to be taken, the urge to press the button and go is more powerful than the urge to hide your face.
Short Vacation clocks in at only 79 minutes, and its premise at first seems low-stakes: Four middle school girls in the photography club procrastinate on a summer assignment to photograph the end of the world, and finally set out to document the end of the train line after a summer spent bonding over snacks and studies and an upcoming fitness class competition. Despite this simple setup, the film subtly conveys just how high the stakes feel when you’re thirteen and every decision you make is filled with both possibility and dread. The people you choose to be friends with could define your life, and slacking off on the summer assignment could affect which university accepts you. The film’s four young stars, who use their real names for their characters, pack Short Vacation with the high expectations of girlhood that can feel both suffocating and liberating at the same time. Who needs to track down the end of the world when every moment has world-ending potential?
Kwon and Seo made Short Vacation as their graduate thesis at Dankook University, but the film has the veneer of veteran filmmakers. Character is never sacrificed for plot, and though it isn’t necessarily action-packed, the film never lingers in one location too long, instead moving to the next train stop, the next bus stop, the next moment that makes the girls laugh. First the group tries to take the train to the end of the line, then transfers to another that will take them to the end of all the train lines around Seoul. But that last station isn’t the real end, having replaced an older, abandoned station only reachable now by bus. Then So-jung (Park So-jung) loses her phone, and they have to trek to an even further bus stop to meet the person who found it. By this point, they’re lost, it’s raining, they don’t have enough money for a taxi, and they’re out of their element in the countryside: “Do you think cows walk this road?” “Did trains really come here?” When a woman says they’ll have to walk around the mountain to get back, they give up and seek shelter in an empty senior center.
Finally able to rest, they begin to confess secrets in the dark—Song-hee (Han Song-hee) thinks So-jung and Si-yeon behave like they’re still in elementary school, but So-jung thinks Song-hee and Yeon-woo (Bae Yeon-woo) exclude her just to be mean. Their resentments of each other are short lived, though, and they’re brought back together by Si-yeon’s palpable need to be liked and accepted. Though Yeon-woo acted like the friendship bracelet she gave Si-yeon was just a token, Si-yeon knows that both her social standing and her self-esteem depend on it. Even if they’re mad at her in the morning for planning this doomed excursion to the end of the world, she knows her power lies in reuniting the group for this one night.
Short Vacation manages to strike the balance of a quiet, contemplative film that doesn’t drag on or misplace its tone; each scene feels meticulous in its crafting and placement, and the girls’ sense of humor grounds the piece in a realistic teenage world. Though it played this year’s Busan International Film Festival and Berlinale, it has not yet been picked up for international distribution, and would fit quite well on an independent streaming service like MUBI, which is known for shining a light on less heralded international ventures. The film ends with Si-yeon doing something Short Vacation never indulges in—wasting a shot. She snaps endless photos of the flimsy curtain separating the senior center from the outdoors, maybe thinking this moment itself is the end of the world, or maybe content to bask in a solitude that’s become all too infrequent in the company of hard-earned friends.
This review is from the New Directors/New Films Festival.