Two of the most memorable Korean films in recent memory have been Shutter and Oldboy, both containing lead characters harboring secrets which, throughout the course of their respective films, cause them to slowly crumble and collapse. Combine bits of both films with a brilliant police drama and you’ve got A Hard Day; this title doesn’t even begin to tell you the trouble of the main character and the misery our hero (or is it anti-hero?) has to endure.
Released last year in Korea to wide acclaim, A Hard Day is a fairly Western-style police film, with characters and a storyline that wouldn’t seem out of place in a film by Martin Scorsese or one that stars Michael Douglas. This gripping and tense thriller hooks you in its opening minutes and keeps you spellbound throughout, as writer/director Kim Seong-hun sends us through a hell of a mess involving an off-duty detective and a situation which spirals quickly out of his control.
What A Hard Day does best is to leave us hanging on every little thing happening to Detective Ko Gun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), whose life goes from bad to worse to in one night. On his way to oversee the preparation of his mother’s corpse for burial, Gun-su swerves to avoid a dog in the road, only to see a body fly up and over the hood of his car, cracking the windshield in the process. If you’ve seen hit-and-run accident films like I Know What You Did Last Summer or Big Nothing, you know what happens next – panicking causes the worst in us to come out, and Gun-su’s no different. I mean, hey – his mother’s already getting buried; why not use the extra space in the coffin to dispose of the evidence?
Great plan, if not totally perverse and a little frightful. However, there’s one tiny little problem: there’s a witness, and soon Gun-su starts receiving phone calls from a blocked number on his cell phone reminiscent of “Booth” from In the Line of Fire, pretending to be far away before Gun-su realizes this person is close by. Physically and figuratively, the caller is, indeed, close – he’s a cop, too. Cho Jin-woong is perfect as the gloatingly corrupt Lieutenant Park Chang-min, who may or may not have had a hand in why the hit-and-run victim was standing where he was when Gun-su came along.
The rest of the film looks at the struggle to maintain what dignity and integrity Gun-Su has left, lest he end up like Park. Gun-su’s got a kid to think about, and his sister wants to open a toast shop; it’s as if Gun-su is caught between the world of the virtuous and the evil, and one has to claim his soul. Which one’s it going to be? Seong-hun makes the most of the tension by hurling us into scenes with Gun-su facing off against Park, eager to confront his accuser and figure out his game before the hammer comes down and he goes to prison for life.
In this modern era, where a phone call can be made with the ease of reaching into one’s pocket and pushing a button, it’s easy to keep things moving and kinetic, which is what Seong-hun chooses. A good portion of this movie is spent on phone conversations, whether it’s to facilitate an interrogation, to report on a case, or to threaten. The way the unseen blackmailer is revealed makes good use of how easy it is to manipulate someone by phone, first making Gun-su run after him, then give chase using cars. Seong-hun enjoys this old-school fashion, using well-worn techniques to wrest tension out of every action scene he gives us. It’s almost as if Seong-hun has taken the best of American police dramas and made a 111-minute story using bits and pieces of all of them. However, it’s not meant to be homage; A Hard Day comes off totally fresh and inspired, and it’s got more than a few surprises up its sleeve.
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