Review: Lee Yoon-ki’s “Ad-Lib Night”

Lee Yoon-ki’s third feature Ad-Lib Night (2006), based on a short story by Japanese author Azuko Taira, is an intimate and beautifully observed drama which takes place, as per the title, mostly over the course of a single night. Within this compressed time frame, Lee’s searching and perceptive camera-eye shows us a world of pain, humor, and revelation, delivered with the finely honed attention to detail and human psychology he was so adept at in his first feature, This Charming Girl (2004), and in his second, the underrated Love Talk (2005). His latest film, like his debut, has a woman (Han Hyo-ju) at its center, whose true identity isn’t revealed until a startling and poignant scene near the conclusion. She is accosted while on her way to meet someone by two men who mistake her for Myeong-eun, the long-estranged daughter of a dying man. After a protracted, and nicely staged, scene in which after much argument back and forth they slowly realize that she is not who they thought she was, they convince her to pose as this long-lost daughter in order to fulfill the dying man’s wish to see his daughter one last time. They travel far from Seoul to their small town, where the other members of the family are keeping a night-long vigil, since he is so near death.
The set-up is quite simple, but this works all the more to highlight this film’s considerable virtues. Ad-Lib Night is shot almost entirely handheld, with the camera often very close to the actors, and both the family conflicts and the provincial nature of the small town are laid bare over the course of this long night. The scenes of the family arranged in a circle, first debating over whether to go through with the plan to deceive the dying man, and later fighting amongst themselves over long-simmering internal grievances, are vividly rendered by the excellent ensemble cast. In these scenes, the missing daughter looms even larger by her absence. And as we do with many of the characters, aspects that are revealed about them force us to cast aside our initial judgments of them. Myeong-eun, who at first seems to be “unfilial daughter,” as one family member puts it, becomes a more sympathetic figure as we get to know more about the family she left behind. “Now I see why she went away,” one of the young men observes late in the film, as he talks to Myeong-eun’s stand-in.
This film, as much as anything else, is about acting, or more precisely, performance, in both art and life. Interestingly, both the Korean title, which translates as “A Very Special Guest,” and the English title contain references to the performing arts. The young woman is indeed a “special guest” actor in the intense family drama she witnesses, and she must “ad-lib” her way through this night. She rehearses her one line – “Father, I’m sorry” – repeatedly on the long drive to the family home. In one funny scene, after one of the men criticizes the young woman for not being convincing enough, the other retorts, “We’re not shooting a film.”
The young woman, whose role is supposedly so essential, is quickly shunted to the side and is kept peripheral to the family’s squabbling. She spends most of her time in Myeong-eun’s room, searching through her possessions and trying to get some sense of who this lost daughter was. She remains a silent enigma throughout the film, raising many questions, not the least of which is why she allows herself to be brought along on this unusual trip.
“Everybody has their reasons,” Jean Renoir famously stated in Rules of the Game. This film is a wonderful expression of that statement, proving that films need not be sensational and action-packed to be engrossing and suspenseful. Even the smallest gesture, like the young woman exchanging her own socks for the lost daughter’s socks, speaks volumes about character and irresistibly draws us in. Poetic and beautifully crafted, Ad-Lib Night is one of the very best of recent Korean films.