A homicide detective is having a very bad day. Internal affairs are ransacking his desk, his daughter is demanding chocolate cake, he’s been pulled over for a DUI and he’s got a body stashed in his boot. And he’s on his way to his mother’s funeral! And his damn phone won’t stop ringing! And his shoelaces have snapped!
No wonder he’s frazzled.
Detective Ko Gun-soo’s (Lee Sun Gyun) litany of disaster begins with a hit and run. To his credit, his first instinct is to report it, but just as he’s dialling the emergency services his his daughter calls with demands for cake. He’s in shock and mildly freaked out by the sight of a cop car heading his way. Then he makes the first of several bad decisions; dragging the bloody body off the road, wrapping it in a sleeping bag and bundling it into the trunk of his car. Now he has to get rid of it – but how? Well, his mother is being buried today and her coffin is awfully roomy…
Director Seong-hoon Kim’s A Hard Day is equal parts farcical comedy and slick crime thriller. From the comfort of your cinema seat you’ll grin with sadistic pleasure as a thousand things go wrong at once for our hapless hero. As a corrupt cop he’s hardly the most likeable man, so maybe this is karma coming to bite him in the ass. This escalating disaster – a lone man as the universe’s chump – is the foundation of classic cinema from Falling Down to City Lights.
The best bits of A Hard Day are powered by ghoulish audacity. The pinnacle is a bravura sequence where Gun-soo must sneak a corpse into his mother’s coffin. I won’t spoil exactly how he does it, but his scheme involves a dozen yellow balloons, a length of fishing wire, a radio-controlled toy soldier and a shoe. These combine to make a plan that’s as logical as it is demented, the scene growing progressively funnier as he improvises crazier and crazier solutions to his mounting woes. I was actually reminded of Mr. Bean during this scene, with both characters in ludicrous, yet understandable situations.
This scene is the pinnacle of the movie. The comedy is firing on all cylinders, it’s suspenseful and you wonder where the hell A Hard Day is going to go next. Unfortunately, the answer is downhill. About halfway through the film begins to skew less towards comedy and more towards a rather familiar blackmail plot. The central concept of everything possible going wrong falls by the wayside, a shift in atmosphere directly corresponding with the arrival of the villainous Cho Jin-Woong (Park Chang-min). The appearance of an omniscient, manipulative, suit-wearing bastard (there seem to be a lot of these in South Korean cinema) marks the point where the movie becomes a bit over-familiar. I was perfectly content watching fate beating our hero up, but slightly less so watching a baddie actually beating him up.
Lee Sun Gyun has a marvellous deadpan that elevates the early, funny scenes, but as the film winds towards its conclusion, his performance grows slightly unconvincing. We’re repeatedly told that Gun-soo is a hardened homicide detective with a feared temper, but what we actually see is a frightened man prone to crying fits. Granted, his life is falling apart, but it’s difficult to imagine the character in his natural state.
Making things worse is that the villain is weirdly invincible. By and large this is a roughly realistic movie, so it stretches credibility when it shifts gear to accommodate a Jason-like bad guy that’s apparently un-killable. With him around, the action shifts into a cartoony gear, contrasting unfavourably with the comedy in the early scenes which relies on people (and basic physics) behaving in familiar ways.
It’s not that A Hard Day ever becomes genuinely crappy. It’s more that after shining so brightly on everything at the beginning, the rest feels muted. Compounding this is that the film isn’t particularly visually dynamic. The coolly fluorescent lighting scheme is taken straight from the Park Chan-wook playbook and though the movie flirts with the occasional stylish wide shot it never truly impresses. Don’t get me wrong, this is perfectly competent filmmaking, but it’s just a bit humdrum and with a whiff of the televisual.
Rolling away underneath the events of A Hard Day appears to be an indictment of the South Korean police as incompetent and corrupt in equal measure. Coverups, bribery and officers breaking the law appear to be everyday business in the world of the film. I have no idea if the South Korean police really are this crap (it’d be worrying if they were,) but even from my position of ignorance there’s a seam of righteous indignation running right the way through the film that gives it an unexpected and appreciated political bite.
It’s unfortunate that A Hard Day proves unable to sustain its momentum, but thanks to Seong-hoon Kim’s firm grasp on comedic timing and a willingness to boldly head into bonkers dramatic territory, it’s still worth a watch.
If it had managed to maintain its early energy, A Hard Day would have been a stone cold comedy classic. Instead, it's merely diverting.