The wholesome small-town values of an ageing hairdresser place her increasingly at odds with her cynical consumerist kids in Fu Tien-Yu’s poignant tale of changing times, yet as she’s fond saying children have their own lives and all that really matters is that you’re satisfied with what you have. Day Off (本日公休, běnrì gōngxiū) is partly a lament for the things we’ve thrown away in the name of convenience but also a celebration of human connection brokered by something as simple and routine as a haircut.
A Rui (Lu Hsiao-fen) has toiled away in her family-run barbershop for most of her adult life and the business has changed little in the time she’s been running it. Old men and their sons have been coming to get a haircut and a shave for the last few decades because as someone else later puts it, men are largely creatures of habit and a hairdresser like a wife is hard to switch. A Rui’s daughter Ling is also a hairdresser but works in a much more modern salon and is planning to open a supercuts-style express service aiming to get people in and out in a short amount of time for a small amount of money. Ling’s philosophy is contrary to everything A Rui was taught, advised by her mentor to take her time and work with precision. He told her that if she provided a good service she’d always have custom and does that does seem to have been the case.
Then again perhaps times aren’t so different as they seem. Ling is unpopular at her salon because she has poor customer service skills and doesn’t seem to be particularly well suited to the social nature of the job. Her boss always gets all the best clients and that’s largely because he treats them just like A Rui treats hers even if his care and attention is a little more cynical than heartfelt. Ling has also divorced her husband, Chuan, essentially for being too nice after he lent money they were saving for a new flat to a friend in need. A Rui can’t understand why she’d split up with a perfectly good man when they have a small child together, but Ling is an ambitious ultramodernist who values change above all else and looks down on small-town values of community and reciprocity seeing her former husband and mother as merely foolish and living in the past. She can’t understand why her mother bothers to ring up her elderly regulars to remind them they’re due a haircut when she could just set up an automated system to take care of it for her, nor can she get her head round it when A Rui says she’s going to travel to a faraway town to cut the hair of an elderly gentlemen who can’t make it to the shop without even asking for expenses.
But to A Rui it’s just the right thing to do and an appropriate act of reciprocity for decades of custom. Chuan feels much the same, always willing to put his life on hold to offer roadside assistance and understanding if a client can’t pay him right away knowing that they can’t get the money if they can’t work so it’s better to just fix the car. A Rui worries about her other daughter living with a boyfriend and a dog in a rented flat in Taipei, and about her son who seems to have several failed entrepreneurial projects behind him, but encounters on the road another man who gave up a job as a scientist to become a farmer and seems to be happy with his choice. In the end it might not be that one is better than the other, the only thing that matters being whether or not you’re satisfied with what you have.
There’s a certain poignancy in the disappearing quality of A Rui’s way of life, the hair on one of her customer’s heads slowly turning from black to grey as if she were literally shaving the years off him. “Time flies” she often remarks, realising that she’s known some of her customers all their lives and has become a kind of community hub that they can always return to even if they move away. The knees she once practiced her shaving on are now old and worn from years of standing, but as her customers remind her she can’t retire because no one knows their heads like she does and then where will they get their hair cut? Bittersweet and elegiac, Day Off ends on a note of moving on as A Rui gives the baby of a second generation client their first haircut and prepares to say goodbye to a much a loved friend seeking a more satisfying future while resolving to carry on doing what she does best in providing the best possible service to her regulars and to the world around her.
Day Off screens in Chicago April 15 as part of the 16th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.
Original trailer (Traditional Chinese / English subtitles)