In A Day Off, Lee Man-hui’s sparse tale of alienation and despair, two lovers meet up surreptitiously one winter’s Sunday in 1960s Seoul. He has no money and no prospects, and their relationship may have no future – indeed, it may already be over. There’s one thing that seems to stop them ending things there and then – she’s six months pregnant. Should they keep it? Could they find a way to afford to get rid of it, even at this late stage? Before this Sunday is through, maybe they’ll find their answers.
The film was originally banned in South Korea for painting a bleaker portrait of society than the authoritarian government was willing to countenance. Director Lee was given the option of shooting a happier ending, but refused on principle. Seven years later he died, and thirty years after that the print was unexpectedly re-discovered, in a more open age where it could finally be shown.
A Day Off is a brutally alienating film in something like an Antonioni-esque register, albeit featuring scrappily desperate bottom-of-the-pile characters rather than Antonioni’s middle-class poseurs. This is a flinty, bitter tale of two despondent lovers, snatching some time amongst the whirling snowflakes to grab cheap coffee, purloined cigarettes and a meandering stroll in order to discuss their regrets, their despairs, their hopes and their options for the future.
The use space, location and editing in this film marks it out as more than mere melodrama. Possibly derived from the use of real-life locations, and a desire to exclude extras or real-life citizens from shot, we see near-deserted locales shot from a variety of different angles, stitched together to give a disorienting feel and uneasy rhythm to proceedings. The looped dialogue (again, necessitated by the locations shoots) adds to the general air of unreality.
Put together, it imparts a dislocated, wintery, purgatorial texture on Seoul, that permeates the whole film and keeps things just on the edge of nightmare. This is a desolate city whose semi-built structures seem to indicate that it’s in a state of rebuilding – or of dismantlement.
Shin Seong-il’s performance as the male lead, Huh-wook, is a classic of his type: a vaguely (but not very) charming figure, a drifting chancer with a nice grey overcoat and an empty wallet. A Camus-esque bum with just enough style and just enough good looks to make him interesting – unless he starts drinking, and the charm falls away. The girl remains more of a cypher – and possibly a sap.
More attention grabbing is her rival for Huh-wook’s affections – a barfly with a little money that he notices propping up the counter in a vaguely ritzy drinking den. Her portrayal of nihilistic hedonism is quietly electrifying – possibly the best in the picture. She expects absolutely nothing from men, or from life. She’ll drink, maybe screw, go to sleep, wake up, do it all over again, and never be particularly sad, because she’s surrendered to the idea that she’ll never be particularly happy either. Long after the picture ended, she was the character I was thinking about.
In any case, this is a world where neither casual sex nor punishing violence offer any kind of release, and at 73 minutes A Day Off is just long enough to deliver that sense of entrapment without Director Lee’s outlook becoming numbing. When the church bells finally ring midnight, the audience is left to decide whether the future will ever hold any hope for people like these characters. It may have taken 37 years of Sundays, but for the film at least, the future eventually smiled. We are now permitted to enjoy this vision of doom.
A Day Off shows at the London Korean Film Festival on Saturday November 2nd, at the Regent Street Cinema in London and then at Home, Manchester on November 24th.