Just noticed that the Korean thriller A Hard Day is available on Amazon Prime Instant, I saw this at last year’s LFF instead of going to see Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini biopic which had a queue out the door (a perfect example of a ‘festival bubble’ film). A Hard Day sadly is not all that great, but I’m still sure I made the right decision.
On a rainy night Detective Go Geon-soo is driving too fast trying to make it back to his mother’s wake with a cake. He’s already had a few drinks and is momentarily distracted when he swerves to avoid a dog in the road and instead hits and kills a homeless man. With no apparent witnesses he bundles the bloody body into the boot of his car. Subsequent efforts to cover up the crime are hampered first by the sudden attention his department receives from an internal affairs corruption investigation then by anonymous phone calls from someone with knowledge of his crime. While he has used his position to erase evidence and divert suspicion, it seems that the mystery caller also has privileged access.
This Korean thriller is spirited entry in the ‘venal-idiot-in-peril’ sub-genre that uses black humour to leaven the potentially audience alienating effect of a protagonist who is a self-centred and corrupt douchebag. As is common in films of this type the plot begins with the ‘hero’ committing an act he then wishes to keep secret but his cover up triggers a rapidly escalating series of increasingly threatening events. Each plot twist causes him to dig a deeper hole causing further chaos, he is like a straw man trying to put out a match with a dry wad of tissue paper and burning down his flat.
Seon-gyun Lee is an appealing lead; he has enough charm that his on-the-take cop is not completely loathsome, but also a slickness that makes it easy to take pleasure in his catastrophic misadventures. Unlike the masochistic pleasures which the horror genre (in general) services, the neo-noir doofus thriller offers sadistic thrills. It is important to any black comedy film like this that the audience partially despises the hero, they must fulfil the Jungian archetype of Trickster, Clown and The Fool. If too much sympathy is generated it will shifts comedy into tragedy and curdle the laughter.
Mortem Tyldum’s Headhunters managed this balance extremely well, but also navigated out of the shallows of dark humour into deeper waters of suspense and threat far more successfully than A Hard Day. Both films share certain blandness in the filmmaking and editing style stakes, but Headhunters had a more compelling protagonist and an antagonist who was genuinely threatening. A Hard Day makes a significant misstep in overplaying the moustache twirling dastardliness of its real bad man.
Like its central character, A Hard Day must accomplish a skilled juggling act whilst simultaneously looking like it is about to drop all its beanbags on the floor. For a while director Seong-hoon Kim manages to do this, the film is best in its first third culminating in a hilarious sequence in a funeral home. As the inevitable larger plot begins to emerge and the fog of confusion lifts, Kim looses his grip on the material. Ultimately the director steps on one discarded beanbag too many and the film falls flat on its face with a final act showdown that stretches credulity far past breaking point.
A long way from the heights of this genre set by the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, or Scorsese’s After Hours, A Hard Day works like a dog but is unlikely to make all but undemanding viewers feel OK.