A Hard Day (South Korea, 2014)

A hard day leads to an increasingly rough week in this blistering crime thriller from writer-director Kim Seong-hun, who infuses his taut neo-noir plotting with a wicked streak of dark humor.

It opens with beleaguered homicide detective Go Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) struggling to juggle a number of professional and personal obligations: his mother has passed away, his wife has filed for divorce, and his unit is under investigation from Infernal Affairs. On route to his mother’s funeral, the heavily stressed and somewhat intoxicated Go is driving carelessly and commits a hit-and-run, causing a fatality. As the only witness to the accident seems to be an attentive dog, Go stashes the corpse in the boot of his car and manages to have it buried in his mother’s casket in the surrounding mountain region. With his colleagues pulling some strings to make the corruption charges go away, and Go staging a traffic accident to not only explain the damage to his vehicle but to have it covered by his insurance, the detective thinks that he his in the clear. However, when it turns out that the man he killed was actually a small-time criminal with significant underworld ties, Go’s world really starts to unravel. He starts to receive threatening phone calls from a man with knowledge of his crime, with his eventual blackmailer turning out to be Park Chang-min (Cho Jin-woong), a fellow cop whose drugs-related sideline represents a level of corruption that makes Go’s unit look like model civil servants by comparison.

Kim kicks off his cynical genre piece with such brio that one almost expects the film to stall at some point, but his storytelling skills, flair for the unexpected, and ability to add telling character beats to ingenious set-pieces ensures that the initial grip of A Hard Day intensifies as the narrative progresses. The first act is filled with a level of ingenuity that most thrillers reserve for their climax: it would be unfair to spoil the spur of the moment plan that Go concocts to get the corpse past mortuary security and into his mother’s casket, but suffice to say, it is executed in a manner that is as mordantly delightful as it is classically suspenseful, with a splendid use of props. A later scene involving a ticking bomb is equally played as much for nervous laughs as it is for traditional tension, casually enhancing the audience’s complicity in the abundant amorality on display through the escapist pleasure that is induced through watching a protagonist try to dig himself out of a hole by committing further acts that go against the codes of his profession.

In this respect, the crisply shot A Hard Day evidences a true noir spirit that is often lacking in more stylistically self-conscious exercises, as everyone here is culpable to some extent, with Go’s jittery resourcefulness under extreme duress being his most endearing characteristic, as he is otherwise a complacent detective who has largely left the upbringing of his young daughter to his sister (Shin Dong-mi) in the wake of his divorce. Even when it seems that Go has redeemed himself, Kim wraps everything off with parting shot that leaves his morality hanging in the balance. Aside from its gruesome details, much of the humor here stems from the portrayal of corruption as an everyday element at all levels of the South Korean police force, with officers bending the rules to avoid breathalyzer tests or remove speeding fines from the system, not to mention the outright bullying of those in lower positions of authority. Such commentary is never heavy-handed, with Kim integrating such sly digs into the twist-filled narrative, thereby presenting a rigged system that must be navigated on its own unfair terms if one is to progress, or at least survive long enough to pick-up a pension.

This is Kim’s first feature since the commercial failure of his self-penned debut effort How the Lack of Love Affects Two Men (2006) and marks the emergence of a supremely confident talent. He elicits a terrific performance from Lee, who continues the trend of easy-going South Korean leading men turning to tough thrillers when in need of an image change, and uses the kindly features of the well-built Cho to surprisingly intimidating effect. These adversaries throw-down in two brutal fight scenes that pit the former’s lithe physique against the latter’s sheer bulk, with Kim finding ways to make even this stock element of South Korean thrillers feel fresh and involving.

As sharp in execution as it is in conception, A Hard Day is not only one of the best straight genre films of the year but a killer comeback that rockets Kim to the top of the list of South Korean directors to watch out for in the future.