In the opening scene of "A Leave" we watch a bunch of furniture factory employees at a sit-in, continuously on strike in Seoul. We soon find out that they recently lost a lawsuit. Jae-bok (played by Lee Bong-ha) is having doubts about the mission. Because Jae-bok is not very good at expressing himself, it's some time before we realize that he's raising two daughters at home far from Seoul. Since the labor action is at a standstill, his fellows advise Jae-bok to take "A Leave" at home while they plot their next move.
The question of what the labor union will be doing next is deliberately left ambiguous at the end of "A Leave" even as Jae-bok makes new plans. This ambiguity is the core moral message of "A Leave" which concerns itself with the finer dimensions of labor rights. While Jae-bok expressed serious doubt about the mission back in Seoul, at home with a possibly more sympathetic audience Jae-bok doesn't have much to say. He just works on cleaning the home, mostly, which has become filthy in his absence.
Jae-bok's daughters Hyeon-hee (played by Kim Jung-yeon) and Hyeon-bin (played by Lee Seung-joo) don't much care about the struggle. They have their own problems, and I liked how we don't actually see all three of them in the same room together until nearly the end of the movie. They're unavoidably dysfunctional, with wildly differing personalities and outlooks. Hyeon-hee and Hyeon-bin both dig at Jae-bok's manhood by questioning his usefulness as a father figure.
Yet the man who seemed weak-willed in the face of his fellow union organizers is surprisingly strong-willed when given purpose. Much of "A Leave" centers around how Jae-bok's vacation involves briefly working again at a comparatively unregulated small furniture shop. We see him bond with Joon-yeong (played by Kim Ah-seok), a young man who doesn't talk much and is always listening to his headphones. Nevertheless, Joon-yeong is a fellow worker. So in Jae-bok's eyes, he deserves respect.
A lot of "A Leave" is just wrapped up in Lee Bong-ha's performance as the middle-aged lead who is bumbling yet never humorous. Indeed, aside from his desire to just try and keep places clean, Jae-bok spends a lot of time worrying about kids- his own, and Joon-yeong, who he doesn't know how to talk to and who don't seem to have any notion of the greater world around them. Jae-bok is ultimately inspired to fight for labor rights by being reminded how little the next generation understands what labor rights even are or why they're important.
It's a fight that may be doomed, yet as writer/director Lee Ran-hee envisions it here, it's still a fight worth having. There's just something so intensely personal about the way most of the scenes here are filled, with a small, closed-in tent leading to small closed-in apartments and a small closed-in working space. These aren't lives lived of luxury, these are lives lived of hard honest work. And that deserves respect which higher management will not relinquish of their own free will.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via email@example.com. He also has a substack at williamschwartz.substack.com where he discusses the South Korean film industry in broader terms and takes suggestions for future movies to review.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "A Leave""
by HanCinema is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
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