Review: Short Vacation Is an Austere, Poignant Reverie About Life’s Promise

The film, lacking in conflict and danger, is guided by the poignant belief that there’s no end to the world.

Short Vacation
Photo: Tiger Cinema

Kwon Min-pyo and Seo Hansol’s Short Vacation begins with the arrival of Si-yeon (Seol Si-yeon) at a new middle school at the start of the spring semester. In contrast to many films centered around young people adjusting to a new home and school, Si-yeon so easily gets along with a trio of girls, Yeon-woo (Bae Yeon-woo), So-jung (Park So-jung), and Song-hee (Han Song-hee), that you would think that they have been friends for ages. This casual subverting of our expectation—that it will be focused on Si-Yeon suffering the pangs of adjustment—proves to be Short Vacation’s default mode. In the film, conflict is resolved almost as soon as it emerges—all the better to stress the characters’ capacity for harmony.

After class, the girls head to their extracurricular photography club, where the advising teacher, Mr. Kang (Kang Suk-won), remarks that all they do is watch movies. Amusingly, one early scene shows the girls lying on the floor out of view during a screening of John Ford’s Stagecoach, the sound off and the film un-subtitled in Korean, the girls’ absence in the frame suggestive of their disinterest in the film. Only as school lets out for summer break does Kang decide to actually introduce his students to the concept of taking photos, giving them the assignment to photograph “the end of the world” and handing them disposable cameras that initially baffle those who’ve never used a camera that wasn’t built into a smartphone.

The girls quickly figure out the basics of taking photographs and collectively decide to ride Seoul’s subway to its last station in order to take photos of where the rail lines end. But upon arriving at the station they discover, to their annoyance, that the tracks keep going, connecting to depots and even to areas of the city once serviced but now abandoned. Though some of the girls are willing to just take some photos there and be done with their project, others are already morphing into young artists, refusing to settle for “underwhelming” compositions.

As the quartet decide to soldier on past the city limits of Seoul, they pass abandoned subway stations and asphalt roads that start to taper out into dirt roads. These spaces are pregnant with symbolism but don’t strike the characters as the ideal subject matter for their photos. As the girls drift further away from the city, their phones increasingly losing power, one cannot help but feel concerned for their safety or wonder if their parents might be looking for them. But Short Vacation never plays up the dangers of children roaming around without adult supervision or protection, instead adopting a whimsical attitude toward their exploration.

Furthermore, Kwon and Seo use the girls’ journey as a means to ponder the small, visible ways in which history can be measured. For the girls, everything is old, to the point that a dusty, never-completed transit station first built in 2005, before any of them were even born, may as well be as ancient as the verdant mountains that pop up in the background of shots as they wander into the countryside. Even when the girls are forced to spend the night in an empty community center far out in the country, the tone of the scene remains playful and intimate, with the characters acting as if they’re having a normal sleepover at one of their homes.

The film, lacking in conflict and danger, is guided by the poignant belief that there’s no end to the world. Its characters’ quest for a single image of profundity plays out like an austere riff on Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, albeit with the anticlimactic confrontation of four boys with the existential banality of death from that film replaced by an equally quiet vision of four girls evocatively grappling with the possibilities of life. The quotidian humdrumness on display throughout Short Vacation is rendered elegant and captivating by its brightly lit images, typically arranged in long shots to take in as much of the world around the girls as possible. The abundance of space around them likewise reflects the film’s core theme: that the harder the girls try to find some sense of finality, the more they discover how life goes on.

 Cast: Seol Si-yeon, Bae Yeon-woo, Park So-jung, Han Song-hee, Kang Suk-won  Director: Kwon Min-pyo, Seo Hansol  Screenwriter: Kwon Min-pyo, Seo Hansol  Running Time: 80 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2021

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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