South Korea has produced some of the finest thrillers of the 21st century; in recent memory the films of Kim Jee-woon and Park Chan-wook have not only taken simple genre conventions and turned them on their head but filled their features with a dark wit and searing violence.1 In an odd way, then, it’s refreshing to see a film like Kim Seong-hun‘s A Hard Day, which doesn’t even attempt to plant a distinct hyper-visual style on a well-worn narrative, but rather focuses on the humour underpinning various conventions in the genre.
The film follows a detective lieutenant, Gun-Soo, caught in the worst day of his life. His mother has just passed and he hastily leaves the funeral to head back to his office – because internal affairs is raiding it. En route, he swerves to avoid a dog, hitting and killing a drifter in the process. Then begins the cover-up. The film propells itself along with a juxtaposition of horrible coincidence and moral turpitude and that is one of the film’s greatest strengths, positioning the audience to both sympathise and loathe Gun-Soo. Actor Lee Sun-Kyun manages to walk this tightrope skillfully, almost always endearing on some level.
The film as a whole, though, is not as successful at navigating tone, the superb and funny first act giving way to quite a turgid middle. A lot of the issues with this film do come down to its screenplay, though they are not major. One element that irked in particular was the reveal of the antagonist a handful of scenes earlier than the narrative would require. This reveal added very little to the film, other that imbuing a very faint sense of dramatic irony that was overthrown five minutes later. It also seems to have a problem trusting its audience, the usage of montage to remind the viewer of plot points undercuts tension and gives off the sense of overconstruction – the need to prove that the film is connected to some logic. The ‘conspiracy’ itself also sorely underwhelmed, convoluted and almost unecessary. It should have gone more pulp, less procedural.
When the film is at its most cartoonish, though, it is a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Its almost karmic justice provided ample humour, as did the decision to have every other person in those big scenes act completely normal. This interplay with the people around him, who aren’t suspicious but just plain confused, was a really funny and oft-underseen technique in thrillers. Its willingness to bluntly set up weapons and objects that would come back later was also very much appreciated, if only for an odd and amusing scene involving a C4 demonstration in the films first half. It’s not cartoonish in its action set pieces, though, almost all of which underwhelm. The messy Bourne-esque fight near the end aside, most of the ‘chase’ sequences were pedestrian in their attempt at creating tension.
The literal translation of the film’s title is “Take It To The End”, which perhaps would have been clearer in signalling the films’ final act as a pastiche of thriller conventions.2 As Jessica Kiang at The Playlist points out, the film has almost five separate endings, each hitting different aspcets of the traditional thriller. As noted above, though, its lack of full tonal control means that it is not entirely clear that the film moves into near-parody in its final scenes, occasionally tiresome in how it telegraphs twists and turns.
Despite some disappointing elements within the plot – it had the potential to go even darker – A Hard Day is still worth a watch. It showcases an impressive lead performance, some truly funny sequences that both attack thriller conventions and play with audience sympathy, and it represents a new kind of thriller out of South Korea. I, for one, eagerly await whatever Kim Seong-hun does next.
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