Film Review – A Hard Day
A Hard Day
Imagine the worst day you’ve ever had, now expand it to a couple of days and multiply it by ten. That’s about the equivalent of what the main character goes through in Seong-hoon Kim’s South Korean thriller, A Hard Day (2014). This is a slick, neo-noirish tale that pits one man against Murphy’s Law – anything that could potentially go wrong does, and in the worst way possible.
Homicide detective Go Geon-soo (Sun-kyun Lee) can’t catch a break. He’s going through a divorce, he lives with a sister that bugs him for cash, he forgot to buy the cake he promised his daughter, his mother passes away, and oh yeah, he accidentally hits and kills a stranger with his car on the way to his mother’s funeral. Things go from bad to worse when he makes the ill decision of trying to hide the body and cover up his crime. Almost immediately, things start to unravel for our protagonist as we watch him try to keep the walls from crumbling in.
Seong-hoon Kim (who writes and directs) tosses us into the narrative immediately and takes off running. The pacing picks up almost as soon as it starts, with the car accident occurring right away. This kind of story can easily hook me in: watching a person jump through hoops to avoid being exposed of some dangerous secret. It calls to mind classic film noir, and can generate plenty of suspense when done right. Kim understands this, and instead of dilly-dallying on unnecessary exposition or background development, Kim layers his characters with different dimensions as the plot unfolds. These are personalities that are dictated by their actions, and what they choose or not choose to do can lead to some precarious situations.
For about forty minutes, this was captivating filmmaking. A lot of the fun came in the twists and turns Go Geon-soo encounters when trying to avoid detection. I’ll do my best to keep the details to a minimum. Kim’s direction smoothly transitions the lead character from one danger zone to another, without making each event appear shoehorned in. The moments build upon each other, and just when we think we’re in the clear, it doubles back around with a surprising connection. Despite this being the worst stretch of Go Geon-soo’s life, everything is grounded and believable. What makes the suspense work is that the obstacles can plausibly happen within this context, and it’s just a matter of how far Go Geon-soo will go to overcome them. This causes some funny bits of black comedy. In one scene, Go Geon-soo’s entire well-being rests on his ability to retrieve a toy soldier. On paper it sounds ridiculous, but Seong-hoon Kim makes it work on screen.
A fantastic first half slows down considerably as we move to the second. Whereas the beginning had all these different problems helping to ramp the tension to a highpoint, the latter portion really only focuses on one particular circumstance. I’m being intentionally vague here as to not give anything away – let’s just say it involves the introduction of a new character that throws everything Go Geon-soo knows into a loop. There’s a distinct tone shift when this happens; the mood gets slightly more solemn, and the pacing doesn’t have the breakneck energy that made the beginning so exceptional. That’s not to say there’s no tension at all, because there is. But the “problem” Go-Geon soo faces doesn’t have the same kind of effect. I was much more invested seeing him make his own decisions and try to maneuver out of trouble. In the second half, the control is taken out of his hands and he’s left to simply react to what happens around him.
Sun-kyun Lee is superb in the lead role. He exudes a quality that draws us into his plight, even when he makes morally questionable choices. He strikes the perfect balance of innocence and corruption, which makes him ideal as a noir character. He reminds me of Farley Granger in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) who found himself in a similar situation having to work his way out of a deadly predicament. Sun-kyun Lee shows a grit that fits into the more dramatic elements, but he also knows when to play up the goofiness of the black comedy. It’s a performances that requires a wide range of emotional delivery, and he does it all in convincing fashion.
A Hard Day is a solid entertainment with a first half that flirts with greatness. The second and third act loses steam, and the climactic scene came off more silly than suspenseful. The closing section wrapped things up way too conveniently, a result of the screenplay trying to be more clever than it needed to be. But when Seong-hoon Kim hits the right notes, he does so with flying colors. If you’re into crime dramas that also have a good bit of humor, I’d say give this one a shot.