What does the end of the world look like to a group of middle school girls? In Kwon Min-pyo and Seo Han-sol’s debut film, Short Vacation, four friends embark on a meandering mission to find out, spurred by an enigmatic prompt from their photography club teacher and armed with disposable cameras. Up until then, they’ve languished through their last few days of the semester, where they’re admonished to “have a fun and meaningful summer.” Seemingly at random, they decide to take Seoul Subway Line 1 to its last stop and discover what lies at the edge of the map. They don’t seem interested in the assignment’s apocalyptic overtones; instead, their destination is purely literal: they’re seeking the end of the railroad tracks. For this group of lifelong city dwellers, the end of the world is where mass transit terminates and the countryside begins.
Middle school can be a brutally awkward time, full of raging hormones and confusing emotions. For Koreans, it’s also a time of heightened academic pressure that poses a major shift from elementary school. The majority of middle schoolers attend private “cram schools” in addition to regular school, and the importance of academic achievement is almost all-encompassing. This pressure is depicted throughout Short Vacation; the girls offhandedly one-up each other about their grades and abilities, and the few adults in the film contribute to this environment of protracted educational anxiety. In this context, the film’s title isn’t just referring to a literal vacation — the girls’ impromptu day trip — but to a brief respite from the sort of pressures that will only mount as they get older, culminating in a notorious fever-pitch of competition around college-entrance exams.
In a broader sense, this jaunt is also a break from the inexorable responsibilities of their imminent adulthood. As the day wears on, the girls find themselves lost and far from home, their phone batteries dead and not a soul in sight to give them a lift. They seek shelter from the pouring rain in an empty village hall and decide to spend the night, whiling away the hours confiding in each other. They seem to recognize that this is a special, maybe even pivotal moment, and perhaps this understanding encourages their vulnerability. They share memories of their parents and grandparents, revealing things they wish they hadn’t said and actions they wish they’d taken, pondering how their lives could have been different and delighting in moments of unexpected connection. Kwon and Seo unsparingly capture the fragility and tenderness of these conversations, the unspoken emotional tug behind this yearning for friendship. Interspersed throughout the film are the girls’ analog snapshots, hovering like portals before disappearing again. “The world is big,” they reassure each other, untethered from the umbilical cord that leads them home for the first time, and making their way just fine.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2021 — Dispatch 2.