Heo-wook and Ji-youn are a young couple, desperately poor, who can only meet on Sundays. Without any money to go into a cafe, they wander the windswept streets and parks of Seoul. Their present circumstances are bleak, and their relationship seems strained. But they face a crisis: Ji-youn is pregnant. Unable to support a child, and with little hope for the future, she tells Heo-wook that she wants an abortion.
Forgotten in storage for 37 years after censors refused to allow its release, A Day Off is now recognized as one of the modernist masterpieces of 1960s Korean cinema. Clearly influenced by European auteurs such as Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais, Lee Man-hee’s spare, lyrical images express all the desperation and pessimism that the characters themselves struggle to put into words. It is a work that combines bold aesthetic experimentation with an unflinchingly critical depiction of life for the young and poor in 1960s South Korea.
Within the context of Golden Age Korean Cinema, Heo-wook and Ji-youn are unusually complex characters, turned bitter by disappointment and fatigue. In their interactions with other characters, a portrait emerges of a society that is physically and spiritually exhausted. Yet the film itself is poetic and rich, a kind of love letter to the expressive potential of the film medium. Some of the most visually breathtaking scenes in all of Korean film history can be found in this work, including a sandstorm sequence on Seoul’s Namsan Mountain that is almost magical in its execution.
When the censors first screened this film, they were incensed at its pessimism. But they offered the film’s producers (who happen to be the parents of contemporary director Hong Sang-soo) a deal. Noting that the film’s final line of dialogue references a haircut, they proposed that Lee Man-hee shoot one more scene where the hero shaves his head and joins the military. The filmmakers refused, and thus this masterwork of the Sixties remained buried, like a time capsule, for future generations to discover.