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LKFF: "A Day Off" - A Painful Window to 1960s South Korea

From 1st to 14th November, the Korean Film Festival opened its doors to present the best of the Korean cinema in the last 100 years. The theme of this year’s festival is ‘A Century of Korean Cinema’, ranging from talks and discussions to multiple screenings.

One of the talks I found particularly interesting was "Special Focus: Struggles over meaning in 20th-century Korean cinema", which took place in Regent Street Cinema in London. American film critic, Darcy Paquet, ably described the most important eras of Korean cinema, for example, the Colonial Era, Post-war revival, or the Age of Decline. The latter represents a significant milestone in Korean cinema, leaving the filmmakers seeking meaning in their work and contemporary society. The second part of the evening belonged to Yoo Un-Seong, a Korean film critic, who described the 1990s as the ‘boom’ of Korean cinema. He repeatedly mentioned the new Korean thriller "Parasite", which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019. Unfortunately, the film is not yet released in the UK, awaiting its premiere in February 2020.

One of the viewers expressed concern about not including any North Korean film in the program. Mr Paquet and Mr Yoo both agreed that the two Koreas are too different from each other now, and they should be treated separately. However, Mr Paquet agreed that the festival should be named ‘South Korea Film Festival’ to avoid confusion.

"A Day Off" (1968), a heart-breaking piece by Lee Man-hui, represents the dark history of Korea’s painful separation and the following consequences. Lee Man-hui made about 51 films and "A Day Off" reflects his experimental period from 1960 to 1970. He certainly was not the government’s favourite person. "A Day Off" ended up censored and then rediscovered by the Korean Film Archive. Korean Film Festival (1st to 14th November) screened a digitalised version of the film, inviting viewers to experience South Korea in the most significant age of depression.

Credit: London Korean Film Festival

The film opens with the main character Huk Wook; a broken young man, who meets up with his love Ji-Yeon every Sunday. They are desperate after they discover that Ji-Yeon is pregnant and does not have money for an abortion. Even though the film focuses mostly on dialogues, there is no ‘heavy dialogue’. We mostly watch the characters’ relationship and the evolution of their feelings, which is enhanced by the excellent performance of both actors. The director’s use of soundtrack plays an essential role in the film, leaving the viewer with feelings of desperation and empathy for the characters. During the screening, people shed real tears, showing us how Lee Man-hui mastered the art of melodrama and telling stories without heavy dialogues. The scenes are often shot from a long distance, especially when the characters take a walk through the park. The viewer can see how small they are in comparison to the world and how being penniless dehumanises them in the eyes of contemporary society. The sequences are unusually long, creating an unsettling feeling. You certainly cannot question Huk Wook’s artistic abilities and eye for detail.

The upsetting atmosphere of the film certainly reflects the mood of the 1960s South Korea. The censors banned the film due to it being ‘too dark’, spreading pessimistic air through the society. I recommend the film to everyone who wishes to explore the dark times of humanity and the ‘fruit of the war’, which took many lives even after it has ended.

The Korean Film Festival will hopefully return next year with other films that will allow us to investigate more non-Western cinema.

Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor , and Alexia McDonald, Head Digital Editor

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