Hyuil / A Day Off (1968)

16 03 2015

Death, even when we’re prepared for it to separate us from those that that we love, is jarring. It is many other things, of course, but we seldom process it as an event. Death isn’t an event, though film often tries to sell us it as an event, just sadder and bigger than other ones. Perhaps it is ironic, but the deaths that echo through our brains and leave a sticky residue on our hearts, are something we wrestle with the rest of our lives. Films depicting death get it wrong usually, they provide closure, a sense of purpose underneath all the tears. Either that or they briskly drift away from the emotions and treat death like another plot point, another event in life. A Day Off is a tragedy, one whose visuals and narratives won’t be unfamiliar to anybody well versed in a certain type of sad, poetic arthouse flick (Olmi’s The Vanguished comes to mind, for one) but it offers us a new way of encountering death and grief.

1

Jee-yun and Huh-wook might be in love, or they might just be understanding and sympathetic to their mutual physical needs. The would-be couple meets every Sunday, under the pretense of coffee, but the interactions are physical. We’re treated to a Sunday that would be like any other for the two, except that Jee-yung has some unfortunate news: she’s pregnant but her body can’t handle it. An abortion is necessary, and Huh-wook hops from one irresponsible friend to another in an attempt to borrow the necessary money. He ends up stealing some from a rich friend. Now financed, the operation is set to proceed, but the doctor warns Jee-yun that it will be risky. With the anxiety of Sunday bearing down on him like the cold of Seoul’s winter, Huh-wook wanders around the city to escape the pressures of his reality.

2

“Her name was Jee-yung” Huh-wook informs us at the film’s opening. The past tense suggests she may no longer be with us, a danger that is reiterated by the doctor. Jee-yun does not survive the film. Her death is indeed upsetting, yet director Lee Man-hui’s refusal to depict it onscreen is of interest to me. He could have easily given the two lovers tearfully embracing in a hospital bed as one of them life drew to a close. Jee-yun’s off-screen death makes sense to the film’s focus, we spend more time with Huh-wook throughout, but the absence of a visualized death is of great interest. We do not see enough of Jee-yun to know much about her, outside of information that comes to us in relation to Huh-wook. It sounds almost like a slight, but honestly, the most intriguing element of the film is what we’re never privileged to see on screen. Not Jee-yun’s death, but the way she carries this burden against all the other social factors that already threaten her life.

3

It’s difficult to elucidate what I find so compelling about the framing of (err the lack thereof) Jee-yun’s death. Huh-wook’s bender ends with a drunken hook-up. We can only presume that during this ecstatic encounter, Jee-yun’s life is slipping away. Huh-wook wakes up to the church bells, whose sound signals the end of Sunday. We seem some mental labor taking place in his effort to re-establish his concerns: he needs to be reminded of the fear he feels for Jee-yun. Arriving at the clinic, he’s given the news. A nurse, almost condemning his night of debauchery informs that if he had only arrived a little earlier, he would have had the opportunity to say goodbye. This is treated as a tragic irony, further driving the knife into Huh-wook’s heart. What if he hadn’t gotten drunk and noticed a particularly striking woman at a bar? Does it matter? Jee-yun still would have died, yet that dramatic moment of closure, so frequently depicted in movies, is treated as valuable. It is valuable, of course, but it could never have undone the damage.

4

Jee-yun’s death would be the crux of many narratives, perhaps it was meant to be here, but the film provides us with a moment that concisely confronts grieving. Fueled by alcohol and tears, Huh-wook sprints to nowhere in particular as his head revisits his most cherished moments with Jee-yun. We want these moments, they provide us a heartbreaking and poetic eulogy. But it doesn’t all come together, Huh-wook’s ugly crying takes over the soundtrack. Neither we nor Huh-wook gets to blissfully replay the past. We can only squint and see our memories obscured by the power of the present. Following the loving montage, Huh-wook sits on a train. His crying is no replaced by a hyper-observant sound design that captures all the mundane found in a late night on public transportation. It’s the most brilliant moment in the entire film: the reverie of Huh-wook’s grieving collides with reality. Unfortunately, it doesn’t slow down to let you deal with your pain.

5

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