Hard Day, A

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/06/15 03:46:42

"Easy to enjoy."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Chekhov's _____" is an extremely easy joke to make when watching and reviewing thrillers and the like, and like most trope-related comments, folks often say that in terms of "don't do this" as opposed to "make sure you do it well". I mention this because "A Hard Day" has a fake-out/play-out that delighted me, and making sure that people who know movies knew something was coming was a big part of why it worked. Writer/director Kim Seong-hun does a lot of that, setting things up in plain sight but creating delight from how the situations he's created evolve.

Just look at how this begins: Detective Ko Gun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), speeding away from his mother's funeral (much to the disdain of his sister) because his fellow corrupt cops need him to help out with hiding evidence with Internal Affairs on the way. But wouldn't you know it, he hits a man with his car while swerving to avoid a dog. Covering everything up is a real pain, and that's before it turns out that the man he hit was not some anonymous vagrant - and that someone knows he's hiding something.

Kim piles a whole lot on the audience from the word go, but in doing so he allows the rest of the film to switch into problem-solving mode, and for all that Gun-su is a character who is not going to immediately endear himself to the audience for his pure heart and good intentions, there is a real delight in watching him, faced with a high-stakes puzzle, come up with a clever way to use what's available and still sweat because he's pressed for time. The film has a number of scenes like that, and while it doesn't always prefer them to a straight-up fight, turning a fight into a situation where the audience is keeping track of stuff tends to work better than Gun-su just slugging away.

The other thing that Gun-su just having an almost absurd level of crap piled onto him at the start does is let the movie be very darkly funny. Maybe not so much that it would have been filed under "comedy" rather than "mystery/thriller" back in the days when films had to be put in separate video store aisles rather than just given multiple genre tags, but enough to keep viewers laughing at the franticness of Gun-su's plans and the often improvised tools he uses to carry them out. Even the suspense and action scenes are often build around comedy beats, whether it be subverting action-movie expectations with something out of a cartoon or running out a timer with sitcom banter.

Lee Sun-kyun is given the job of presenting all of that as Gun-su, and it's a performance that just about never misses a beat. Early on, he establishes a twitchy nervousness that the viewer finds very satisfying on its own terms at first, and while he doesn't seem to change much as the film goes on, he does handle the scenes where Gun-su becomes more generally sympathetic as well, always finding the right level of funny and worth having his concerns taken seriously. Granted, his greater likability comes in part from Cho Jin-woong entering the picture fully. There's no gray area to his villainy, and Cho seems to relish it. His ruthless certainty is the opposite of Lee's edginess, although Lee is given enough misplaced confidence to play that it's not entirely obvious all the time.

Kim's script is fun that way, and he knows how to track and either subvert audience expectations, sometimes doing both at once. He does extend the film a bit past its natural ending although it must be admitted that even the audience members who feel the movie should have ended five or ten minutes earlier will like the way that those later scenes are executed. In that way, they're similar to the rest of the movie, which is wonderfully assured: Kim Seong-hun and editor Kim Chang-ju are good at jumping between Gun-su's immediate predicament and the outside pressures making it more tense, and cinematographer Kim Tae-sung has a good eye for both the big picture and the tight space.

That's a lot of places where "A Hard Day" is clever, very good, or at least just a little better than similar thrillers/comedies, and that's before thinking about how relatively few movies fit both of those categories so well. It's apparently getting a small theatrical release in North America right now, and fans of snappy thrillers would do well to jump on it if they get a chance; it's a kick to watch someone try to wriggle out of bad situations this desperately.

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