Prolific as he was, Lee Man-hee had his fair share of troubles with the censors throughout Korea’s turbulent 1960s, most famously with his arrest for breaking anti-communism laws with The Seven Female POWs which was later heavily edited and released as Returned Female Soldiers (perhaps a neat nod back to Lee’s mega hit, The Marines who Never Returned). Before that, however, Lee’s poetic meditation of the difficulties of being young in the increasingly heartless capital, A Day Off (휴일, Hyuil), was banned altogether for painting an all too gloomy picture of modern life and love. Though modern Korean cinema has gained itself a reputation for gloominess, that of the gloomy years was still expected to be, in some way, “inspirational”. Refusing to end on a happier note, Lee shelved the film leaving it unseen until rediscovered for a retrospective in 2005.
The elliptical narrative begins with Huh Wook (Shin Seong-il), trapped by another listless Sunday and remembering a girl he used to spend them with, Ji-youn (Jeon Ji-youn). Huh Wook and Ji-youn can only meet on Sundays. They count down the hours until they can be together again but then when the day closes they almost wish they’d never met at all. Neither of them have any money – Huh Wook can’t even afford a cup of coffee, let alone a wife. The relationship reaches a crisis point when Ji-youn, whose constitution is weak, becomes pregnant.
Huh Wook and Ji-youn’s conversation is raw and painful, filled with half spoken thoughts and an unwillingness to confront the depth of their despair. The couple half discuss their predicament with the assumption that they are talking about a child they cannot afford to have and an abortion they cannot pay for but it turns out the operation that Ji-youn means may be for an unrelated illness. When they finally see a doctor he advises that Ji-youn have an abortion because her health is so poor that she would likely not survive a pregnancy.
This is a city which is rapidly expanding, living conditions and opportunities should be improving but for the left behind like Huh Wook and ji-youn Sunday is all they have to live for, and so they can hardly stand it. Their situation is so hopeless, so filled with despair that there is nothing at all waiting for them but a perpetual cycle of work and release. While Ji-youn is in hospital, Huh Wook wastes time at a bar where he gets chatting to another woman. They talk, they drink, they spend the night together in a derelict building before Huh Wook is woken by church bells and remembers poor Ji-youn lying in hospital, fighting for her life.
Huh Wook is the more romantic but also the least willing to confront the situation. He criticises Ji-youn for her silence but she fires back at him with a description of an idealised life she knows they can’t have – a nice house, flowers in the garden, and yes, children. An ordinary dream but one she knows will never be a reality. Huh Wook leaves her alone to try and borrow money, wasting one of their precious Sundays. His friends have all found different kinds of release – the first is a womaniser but flat refuses Huh Wook money he assumes is for an abortion, the second is a drunk who advises him to have the baby and spend the money on drink, and the third is a wealthy man with a live-in maid. Huh Wook never gets round to asking him for the money but steals it from his jacket while he’s in the bath.
Completed in 1968, A Day Off has echoes of Antonioni in its beautifully empty cinematography and bleak view of human relationships in an increasingly modern world. Huh Wook and Ji-youn appear to have a deep and genuine connection but their existence is so fraught with financial and social difficulties that the future is always an impossibility and, in a sense, already the past. Huh Wook wanders alone. Beaten up by the friend he stole the money from, he’s tired, bloody, and worn out. Yet all he feels is relief. All his hope is gone and now he’s free of its burden, left with nothing other than the false promise of a new dawn on the unforgiving streets of Seoul.
A Day Off is the third in The Korean Film Archive’s Lee Man-hee box set which comes with English subtitles on all four films as well as a bilingual booklet. Also available to stream online via the Korean Film Archive’s YouTube Channel.