Hannah Bang’s “Soak” sneaks up on you and hits you in the heart, just when you think things couldn’t be more tragic for the lonely teenage daughter of a couple in the throes of separation. The short film opens in a spa where Yeonsoo (Do Eun Lee) and her mother (Chaewon Kim) sit in a hot bath together. What's supposed to be a relaxing, meditative experience is instead loaded with tension from the outset (her mom also works there, a new development). The steam on the mirrors in the opening shot obscures their vision of one another. Yeonsoo wants her mother to see her pain and ache. Her mom tries to downplay the situation and be seen as a free spirit. So begins a long evening for the both of them.
Following their soak, they go out to eat where Yeonsoo meets her mom’s new boyfriend, known only as “mom’s new friend” (Sungyeon Kim). It eventually comes out that mom is not coming home, that “getting her life together” does not mean a life with Yeonsoo or her father. Once the confrontation ends, the two central characters stroll through the urban landscape, unable to say much to each other, while Yeonsoo’s dad tries to get her to call home and give him an update on her whereabouts (she lied to him earlier and said she had a late class).
Bang’s direction in the restaurant scene shows tremendous subtlety and grace. In a single wide shot, we watch Yeonsoo sit across from her mom and her new friend. The camera slowly moves in as a harsh reality settles in. The sound of the other restaurateurs also slowly fades out and we don’t even notice it until the very end of the scene. It’s a devastating moment and each performance is flawless.
The subtle/not subtle game of tug-of-war takes its toll on Yeonsoo; she often checks out of her own surroundings only to be brought back to reality via a run-in with a waitress and, later, a speeding car. Do Eun Lee’s performance perfectly captures Yeonsoo's anguish and heartbreak while trying to put on a brave face. Meanwhile the mother downplays every complication by going through the motions of normal conversation, and for whose benefit?
“Soak” feels like a companion piece to films such as “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Shoot the Moon,” or "Marriage Story," and anyone who has ever been caught in the middle of their parents’ separation or divorce will find much to recognize here. Bang shows tremendous promise as a writer and director, her technique never calling attention to itself and always letting the framing of the shot tell the story. Heyjin Jun’s cinematography gives Yeonsoo’s journey a deceptively warm texture for a character who exists in isolation, as if the steam from the bathhouse continues to envelop her. Look at the perfect composition of the diner shot, one of those great instances from background location. Both characters on either side of the table have their own background color, separating them even more.
To view Hannah Bang's "Soak" on Vimeo, click here.