One Day Off: Episodes 1-4 (Series Review)
Beautiful, brilliant, and bothersome, the first four episodes of One Day Off take us on a journey through contemporary life — and the reasons we need a break from it. Lee Na-young is masterful as the solo traveler who will lead us to a mirror, so we can catch a glimpse of ourselves.
I have nothing but praise for this show. And I’m tempted to just run through it, scene by scene, and give away every morsel of detail. But what would be the fun in that when the truth is, you need to see it for yourself to truly experience it.
To set the context, we’ve got a single woman, age not specified (but I’d say, late 30’s, maybe 40), who teaches Korean literature at a high school and leads a somewhat dull existence. When her students peer out the windows of the classroom, dreaming of escape, our heroine stands at the front of the class and does exactly the same.
She tells us that in late 19th century France, there was a psychiatric condition known as “dromomania,” which was characterized by an uncontrollable urge to wander. People left behind jobs and families and just took off, in a kind of “pathological tourism.” But, she asks, was it really madness that caused them to travel? Or was it the dread of going mad in their daily lives that made them leave?
The woman behind these words is PARK HA-KYUNG (Lee Na-young), and she begins each episode by restating a simple premise: “When longing to disappear, I take one-day trips. I walk, eat, and let my mind wander.” From there, each episode is bracketed in its own story, with new characters and encounters. And yet, as the episodes pile up, a continuity starts to develop.
We begin with a trip to a mountain-top temple, where Ha-kyung learns how to practice meditation. They take all the smartphones away and everyone sits crossed legged on the floor in front of a panoramic vista. Ha-kyung tries to count to ten, but is distracted by her thoughts, again and again, and has to keep starting over. It’s here that we learn what kind of show this will be as we gain access to our heroine’s inner monologue, following her thoughts moment to moment.
In this first day trip, she meets a few others at the temple, but most are spending a much longer, introspective stay. There’s a novelist (Seo Hyun-woo), who tries to get to know her, and a woman who’s practicing Noble Silence (meaning she’s taking a break from speaking for a while). This woman and Ha-kyung go walking through the wooded hills together, silently, communicating only to taste berries, sniff pine cones, listen to birds, and finally view an incredible sunset.
The drama knows when to take its time and direct our attention to what it’s trying to tell us, which is something different in each episode. At the temple, the camera lingers on natural details (bugs, leaves, light, rocks) and we focus on Ha-kyung’s thoughts. At one point — in the absence of her phone — she thinks, “We always want a new place. Once that place is reached, there’s a relentless pursuit of another. We’re bound to get lost that way.” And in this context, it seems to be a comment on the distractedness of contemporary life, as we jump from screen to screen.
While the first episode has a light and airy feel, the tone of each episode is different and, once we reach the mid-section, it’s not an easy, breezy show. The second excursion takes us to a small town where one of Ha-kyung’s former students, KIM YEON-JOO (Han Ye-ri), is trying to make it as an artist. This is the most comical of the four installments, but there is something dark underneath as we see a group of young entrepreneurial creatives, pretending to be friends but really existing in a shark tank together.
Yeon-joo is a painter, poet, and performance artist, and by all accounts her work isn’t good. She’s fidgety and insecure and wants desperately to be liked. And this is really the theme of this episode as it explores these young people who are so representative of our times. There’s a genius joke when Ha-kyung is introduced to a content creator and he says, “Like and subscribe to my videos.” And she responds, “Yes, I’ll like them if I like them.” (Do I detect a little Zen in that?)
Each episode is increasingly my favorite, and if you only have time to watch one, I recommend Episode 3. It’s titled “Meta-romance” — and that’s exactly what it is. It takes place on a trip to the Busan International Film Festival, where all the drama’s independent-film-style camera work does its meta job by making us feel like we are the ones watching a small film at the festival.
The episodes are only 25 minutes long and yet Episode 3 does tremendous things — hitting the emotional notes of a romantic movie, making me fall in love with the characters, and breaking my heart at the end. Yes, it’s that good.
As a Korean literature teacher, Ha-kyung remarks that no one writes romantic stories anymore (more meta), and while at the festival, she meets aspiring filmmaker LEE CHANG-JIN (Gu Kyo-hwan). The two hit it off, in an oddball way, and wander the city streets at night, discussing their random thoughts, like the fact that “cute” has no opposite (which I never thought about before, but is totally true).
At the end of the night, he buys her a bag of mandarins and leaves with the promise of meeting in the morning to watch the last movie screening before they both head back to Seoul. Ha-kyung can’t sleep, thinking about this bizarre night she’s just had and the prospect of tomorrow. She arrives early to the theater the next day, waits and waits, and he doesn’t show up. She watches the film alone, gets on the train to go home, and looks at the mandarins wistfully.
It’s not the end of the episode, and back in Seoul, we get another meta-moment, when we see the characters have a near encounter — but they do not see each other. Chang-jin thinks to himself, “We could meet again someday in this unending movie.” And then he looks directly at the camera and says, “Cut!” It’s perfect from start to finish, and I have a million interpretations, but for now I just wonder if the joke will continue. Will we meet him again someday?
The final episode for this week is also my favorite, but I know it won’t be for everybody. Half of its 25-minute run takes place in a bus station and involves a political argument between an elderly gentleman (Park In-hwan), a middle-aged man, and Ha-kyung (who represents the younger generation in this context). This is the episode I would most like to transcribe, word for word, in a running dialogue to exhibit how brilliant the writing is: so brilliant that even talking about it feels like I’m ruining it and I encourage everyone to just watch it. But be warned, even though it ends on an uplifting note, it still left me melancholy — and there was no episode after it to try to change my mood.
The thing that’s impressive here is that the argument is so of the now, and so global, that I feel like every one of us has probably had this exact argument in the last few years. What’s not relatable is how cordially it finally ends, with everyone achieving a modicum of understanding for each other as simply fallible and human. But I also think that’s the point it’s making: couldn’t we all be a little more humble?
I’m so impressed with this show. It’s a slice-of-life, but it is picking and choosing the slices that are most relevant to today’s society and building into what I feel is a kind of treatise. It’s current, touching, and troubling, and has a heroine that’s intensely likable. She’s thoughtful, curious, open, and kind, but also confident, instructive, and self-assured. She doesn’t strike me as someone who’s traveling to try to find herself, or who travels alone in order to find someone else either. In fact, she seems to already know who she is, but is just not satisfied with the mundanity of life.
I was surprised to learn that this is the screenwriter’s first drama, but not so surprised that the writer and director have worked together before on a film. The writing and direction blend skillfully and the drama takes liberties with how to show us information. A handheld camera is often used at the beginning of an episode, when Ha-kyung first arrives in a new place, almost like she needs to gain some stability there before the camera can sit still.
To acquaint us with a new place, we get artful snippets of small towns, faded photos of fish, still shots of buses, and a visible sense of nostalgia. Sound is also adroitly employed, like when Ha-kyung rides an escalator at night and its rhythm is a singular sound, as if she’s the only one in the entire city. It’s artsy for sure, with evocative captures of plastic bags blowing in the wind and French paintings of travelers that look strikingly similar to Ha-kyung. But the faded light turns crisp when it needs to, and the warm, comforting palettes seem mostly like a reminder that we’re not alone on this journey — someone is gently guiding us.
I’ve only seen 50% of this drama but it’s shaping up to be among my favorites of 2023, and maybe of all time. After I watched this week’s episodes, I watched them all again, moving from the emotional impact I felt on the first viewing to the mindful take-aways I was gleaning from the second. It feels more like an independent film than a drama, but it succeeds at everything it’s attempting, and I’m glad it’s taking the risk. If this is the future of dramaland, let us all wander madly into it.