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Short Vacation Review

We are delighted that Dr Kevin Cawley, Director of the Irish Institute of Korean

Studies, Department of Asian Studies, UCC wrote a film review of Short Vacation, our new release as part of the EAFFI Discoveries strand.

Short Vacation will have a one-off in-person screening in the IFI, Wednesday 8th December at 18.30. Also available online, 8 December 2021 – 5 January 2022 on IFI@Home.

Short Vacation (종착역 – literally means ‘terminus station’)

Debut directors Kwon Min-pyo and Seo Hanseol effortlessly trace the happenings and musings of a group of four young middle-school girls in Short Vacation. The young students have been given a rather odd summer vacation activity by their teacher as they are part of a photography club: to take photos of the ‘end of the world’. The teacher hands the girls disposable cameras for the task, and they find them strange and old-fashioned, especially as they are already armed with modern cell phones which they are regularly glued to. What ‘the end of the world’ means is left for the students themselves to interpret which is part of the charm of the film, as it shows them wrestling with how to interpret the assignment, as well as pondering the outcome if they didn’t do it at all. Fearing there might be some negative repercussions, they discuss the title of the assignment and soon decide to take the Seoul subway line to the very last stop of Line 1 (the dark blue line): this seems to be a sort of metaphorical border to what they know about the world. Beyond this last stop is the ‘sigol’ (시골), or countryside, as they refer to it, though Seoul’s high-rise apartment buildings are not far from the ‘end of the world’, suggesting though they may venture beyond its limits, they will eventually have to return.

The girls are usually stuck in the centre of a huge sprawling metropolis where school and after-school private academies, known as hagwon (학원) in Korean, take up most of their time. In fact, we discover that only one of the girls does not attend a hagwon, she is the exception: most children in South Korea attend various private academies for English, Math, Science, Taekwondo (or Hapkido, another Korean martial art referenced in the film) and this places a great financial burden on their families. The financial burden is overlooked by the young schoolgirls who discuss how the subjects taught in these hagwon are more advanced than in their actual school classes – sometimes an entire grade ahead – meaning that the school classes can be boring for them. This also alerts us to the immense competitive pressure on young Koreans to do well in school to get into good universities in Seoul, and so the student who does not attend any hagwon is already greatly disadvantaged (something the Korean audience would immediately recognise!).

Hence, this trip, beyond the limits of their usual daily lives, offers them the chance to finally breathe in the fresh air of the countryside, notice the beauty of nature, as they help and assist each other find their way through rice fields, growing closer, and brought physically closer as they huddle under the rain, engaged in carefree play. The fact that they are left stranded for the night, without cell phones and TVs, allows them to grow even closer and to discuss their personal lives and feelings – an understated social lesson from the directors maybe. The importance of grandparents to all of them is revealed, and they even discover that two of them have grandfathers who fought in the Korean War buried in the same graveyard. The modern trauma of the Korean War, which is subtly alluded to, also adds a reminder of how much Korea has developed, now one of the largest and most technologically advanced economies in the world.

The film moves in a very natural way with the girls’ conversations flowing casually as the audience is allowed to interlope, to discover how they feel and think about the world around them, especially now that they are outside their usual familiar comfort zone, at the end of the world as they know it.

Dr Kevin N. Cawley is Senior Lecturer in Korean Studies and Director of the Irish Institute of Korean Studies since 2011 at the Department of Asian Studies, University College Cork. He is a founding member of the Society for the Study of Pre-modern Asia; in the University of Oxford where he has been a visiting research fellow (at Wolfson College), and is also an editor of Korean Philosophy for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Stanford University, USA). He is the author of Religious and Philosophical Traditions of Korea (Routledge: New York, 2019), which was No 5 on Amazon's 'hot new releases'; relating to religion and spirituality.

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