A Leave (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): His day off from protest

I could not help but feel worried as observing the plain ordinary working-class here of South Korean independent film “A Leave”. While he may not be that smart, he is a good man who has simply struggled to do his best under a very gloomy circumstance with no bright possibility at all, and that is why I often braced myself during my viewing, as wondering about how things may get worse for him during his ‘day off’ period.

During the opening scene, the movie gradually establishes what its hero and several other colleagues of his have been going through during last five years. Since their unjust layoff, Jae-bok (Lee Bong-ha) and his fellow labor union members have been doing a sit-in in the middle of Seoul for five years, but the result has been pretty depressing to say the least. Their union recently lost the final lawsuit requesting for the invalidation of their layoff, and, to make matters worse, their protest does not draw much attention from others, no matter how much they try to continue to speak loud and clear in public.

As Jae-bok and his two close colleagues later talk more about what they should do now, it becomes more apparent to all of them that the circumstance has become much more hopeless than before, so Jae-bok promptly decides that he should take a little break, but he is not greeted much by his two daughters when he subsequently returns to his small residence. Both of his two daughters have been pretty sick of his longtime absence in their life, and Jae-bok cannot say any excuse because he knows too well that he has not provided any necessary support or comfort to them as having always been busy with doing the protest outside along with his colleagues.

However, there is still something Jae-bok can do for both of his two daughters. In case of Hyeon-hee (Kim Jung-yeon), she is about to go to a college after recently graduating from her high school, and she needs some extra cash right now for her upcoming enrollment. In case of her younger sister Hyeon-bin (Lee Seung-joo), it turns out later that she wants to have some fancy winter clothes, and Jae-bok is certainly willing to buy that for her – if he can find any temporary job which pays him enough for that as well as that necessary extra cash for Hyeon-hee.

Of course, it turns out to be quite difficult for Jae-bok to find any suitable job for his current situation. Although he surely has considerable skill and experience to say the least, his unemployed status during next five years naturally sticks out in his résumé, and there is a little painfully awkward moment when an employment agency guy asks him a bit more about what he has been doing during that period. He could tell the truth, but his status as a protesting labor union member is certainly not something to help him get a job.

Anyway, he eventually gets employed temporarily thanks to an old friend of his, who has been running a small carpentry shop belonging to some small minor company. Instead of lending him some money, his friend suggests that he should work at his carpentry shop for a week, and Jae-bok instantly accepts his friend’s offer once he is promised to get paid enough for that.

Jae-bok’s first day at his new workplace is rather awkward as he and his friend are technically an employee and an employer now, but it does not take much time for Jae-bok to get accustomed to this new situation of his. Although he initially makes some mistakes to the frustration of his friend and a younger employee assigned to supervise him, he soon gets better in handling those tools and materials around him, and it looks like everything will go well for him as well as his friend in the end.

However, Jae-bok is reminded again of how physical laborers like him are often disregarded and neglected by their employers. After working more with that aforementioned young employee, he comes to care more about this lad than before, and he has a little moment of solidarity with this lad when this lad happens to have a little unfortunate accident later. As coming to learn more of how his younger co-worker will struggle a lot more with his difficult financial status than before, Jae-bok decides to go a bit further for helping this lad, and that leads to a little strain between Jae-bok and his friend, who is not so pleased with what Jae-bok’s younger co-worker does after getting some legal advice from Jae-bok.

The mood becomes a bit tense later in the story as Jae-bok subsequently has to make a certain hard choice, but the screenplay by director/writer Lee Ran-hee wisely maintains its calm attitude while also bringing more depth to not only its hero but also several other characters around him. As the humble center of the film, Lee Bong-ha carries the story well with his restrained but effective lead performance, and he is supported well by the other main cast members, and Kim Jung-yeon and Lee Seung-joo have a very good scene with Lee when their characters come to reveal their complex feelings toward Lee’s character.

On the whole, “A Leave” looks rather plain and simple on the surface, but it will grow on you via the quiet emotional power beneath its surface, and the result is another interesting South Korean working-class drama of this year. Things are still daunting and uncertain for its hero even in the end, and he still cares a lot nonetheless, and I assure you that you will be touched as getting to know more of this simple but undeniably decent dude.

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