A Day Off, Vintage Dark-Night-of-the-Soul Drama from the Best Korean Filmmaker You’ve Never Heard Of, Screens Tonight

09/30/2011 4:14 PM |


Lee Man-hee’s A Day Off, from 1968, is one of two films by the late, great, prolific director included in MoMA’s series “Yeonghwa: Korean Film Today, 2011.” It screens this evening and Sunday afternoon.

For the broke young couple at the heart of A Day Off, every step feels like the end of the road. They get together every Sunday; on this particularly brisk one, their last decision together is that she’ll get an abortion, and so he runs out to the city to find money to pay for it. In a sad metaphor for their relationship, we see him offer her his coat, then decide to take it with him, then finally take it off and leave it on the ground. During his search, we see her shivering on the park bench while he’s out either being denied loans, or losing his nerve.

Eventually he gets the money, and thereafter, they don’t function as a couple; rather, the narrative stays with him for good once she’s in the clinic. He descends into drunkenness, and his tremulous guilt makes his choices increasingly hapless. Lee prefers long takes that unfold into a quiet stillness, alongside extremely shallow-focus closeups and wide angles from above, making characters look like Legos. Whatever the downbeat version of “savor” is, that’s what you’ll do while watching them.

Watching one despairing development outdo another, the director’s humanism could come into question, if not for the hypnotizing score by Jeong-geun Jeon; it’s the kind of music you’d hear in a solemn karaoke lounge many decades ago. He doesn’t write melodies like Bernard Herrmann, but the composers are alike in their use of lulling, meandering tunes and abrasive orchestral stings to steer the viewer’s emotions. The score gives the images a crystalline quality and makes the movie feel, even for 1968, like a classic-style parable.

A Day Off isn’t a very easy movie, but it’s a beautiful reminder of cinema’s inherent empathy, a too-vivid nightmare for chain smokers, gamblers, drunks, and schlubs in general. The most straightforward people are seen as blank, institutional functionaries, like the train attendant or the gynecologist. You can feel a bitter resignedness running through the film, which makes it different from Kurosawa’s One Wonderful Sunday or De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. Wealthy or poor, people are shown carrying the same burdens of their own weakness.