Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 05, 2021 1:54 pm 
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Snapping the world's end with a plastic camera

Jake Cole describes Short Vacation in his review for Slant as "an austere, poignant reverie about life's promise." You might see it that way, but on the face of it, this little film focused on four teenage girls is not so much "about" anything. The young filmmakers have made a film about four Korean junior high girls. Their names are not changed; they are just "being themselves" in a constructed, improvised slice of life. Early sequences show them with their teacher, Mr. Kang, who heads their photography club. It hasn't yet led to any photography. Seeking to remedy this, before school lets out for the summer he gives them each a throwaway 35mm. film camera loaded with a roll of film and tells them their summer vacation assignment is to use these to take pictures of "the end of the world." It's a challenge to find a symbolic scene or image that leads to a day and night together when the girls get to know each other better, have some quiet fun, and take some pictures.

These scenes are largely improvised. What do the the girls learn? You'd have to ask them. This is a movie about nothing - the hardest kind to describe. It is the sum total of many little non-events that add up to a feeling of hanging out with four Korean teen girls, all in the same class, three who knew each other and one newbie who fits quickly in. Its extremely low key naturalism is what it has to offer. In that improvisational, hanging out style it may capture what it would really be like in the company of these four girls. . . hanging out.

They get along together very well, forming two compatible pairs in a harmonious quartet. Their "end of the world" project resolves, somehow, into the decision to try to take the Seoul subway to the end of the line. Maybe that will have an "end of the world" quality This is what leads to their adventure, which is to get a little lost and wind up, in the rain, too far from home to go back that evening. They decide reluctantly to sleep at an empty senior center. It becomes a sort of pajama party where they sit up talking much of the night, especially about their grandparents.

There is no "end of the world" - no setting that gives off that aura for the girls. The end of the line has turned out to look a lot like every other station, so they take a hike further in search of a more remote one. They find restaurants, old folks, dogs, and a cat and after trying to escape the rain but then, it being a hot summer day, give up and enjoy getting wet. There is no epiphany, no tragedy. The worst thing that happens is that one of the girls disappears for a while (she is feeding a cat) and their smartphone batteries run out and they can't recharge them. When they realize it's too far and too complicated from the subway main line to get back in the dark and rain, they show some concern about the building they are going to stay in. Will somebody come in? Is it too "gross"? But they don't show much concern about their parents worrying. They think they can just be "pitiful" and say they were lost and they'll be forgiven for being out all night.

Thus is this film structured to avoid all drama even when drama might loom. The aim seems to be simply to put the four girls together, away from other influences and people so we can hear them interact. Their silly, trivial conversation becomes a stream of young consciousness, a dial tone of placid adolescence. You must learn to praise this film for being so uninteresting, so uneventful. Because anything else would have distracted from its aim.

Short Vacation/Jong chak yeok79 mins., debuted Mar. 2021 in the Berlinale's Generation section, also in festivals at Busan and Seoul. Screened at home for this review as part of the MoMA/Film at Lincoln Center series New Directors/New Films (Apr. 28-May 8, 2021). Somewhat surprisingly but gratifyingly, in a private review Mike D'Angelo rates this a for him enthusiastic 71/100 (May 26, 2021) and hopes it gets US distribution. That would be nice.

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