Busan 2020 Review: A LEAVE, Responsibilities Clash in Compelling Character Study
Given that it successfully ousted a president after months of mass protests, which peaked with well over two million participants, it should perhaps come as little surprise that Korea is a country where protesting is widespread. For many it's an entrenched weekly hobby, but for some it's a way of life, though one that some may feel was forced on them.
Protests are a prominent theme among the local films at the Busan International Film Festival this year, and one of the most interesting among those is the New Currents competition title A Leave, which would make a fascinating pairing with the documentary Sister J, screening in the Wide Angle section this year. This debut from director Lee Ran-hee provides a compelling and complex character study of a man who feels shackled to his responsibilities as a social activist and struggles to reconcile them with his personal responsibilities as a father.
Jae-bok has been protesting his unfair dismissal for five years but after their latest legal setback, he and his activist colleagues decide to take a break from their full-time activism. He returns home to an apartment in disarray and two teenage daughters who've grown to hate him. His oldest daughter needs to pay a deposit for her college tuition while her sister has her eyes on a winter puffer coat. Feeling the financial pinch, he reluctantly accepts a part-time job in his friend's carpentry workshop, where he works alongside a much younger colleague who doesn't initially share his views on labor rights.
Director Lee Ran-hee opts for a stripped-down style and a fairly straightforward tale that manages to avoid being either melodramatic or preachy. Instead, she largely relies on Lee Bong-ha's unassuming central performance as Jae-bok. Lee's Jae-bok is a man who has very strong convictions about how workers should be treated and wants people around him to take care of themselves and eat well, perhaps because deep down inside he knows he isn't able to help them himself, as he has no power to do so, but also because he's become consumed in a losing battle that his quiet stubbornness won't allow him to give up on.
A Leave paints its protagonist as a kind but simple-minded man who can diligently apply himself to one task and who has a strong sense of responsibility but is unable to juggle conflicting duties. On the rare days he returns home, the first thing he does is carefully clean and fix everything, from unclogging a blocked sink to wiping down dusty fans, before fixing squares meals for himself and his daughters, who he implores not to subsist on instant ramen bowls.
No matter how hopeless Jae-bok's predicament may seems, Lee Bong-ha, a veteran stage actor, imbues him with a sense of dignity. His eyes seem to betray confusion and his voice is thin and high-pitched, in contrast to his stocky frame, but we soon come to understand that what seems like hesitancy is intense concentration - he's acutely aware of his surroundings at all times.
During his lunch break, Jae-bok notices his younger co-worker eating cheap ramen outside a convenience store. He soon invites him to share his own home-cooked meal, as he starts to transfer his paternal responsibility from the daughters that reject him to this young man. Later, things comes to a head when the man has a workplace accident and would rather not cause trouble when his boss doesn't pick up the hospital bill, which fires up both Jae-bok the social activist and Jae-bok the father.
With its short running time and well-drawn protagonist, A Leave is an engaging drama that provides its social commentary without resorting to overly grim and morbid turns of events. Yet this less aggressive and consistent approach to its subject matter also extends to a climax that leaves Jae-bok exactly where he started and doesn't offer any concrete takeaway, beside highlighting the entrenched stubbornness of a kind middle-aged Korean man who has been locked in a detrimental social position while his family ties gradually whither away.