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Review: Nutso, Ballsy, And Exhilarating South Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’

Review: Nutso, Ballsy, And Exhilarating South Korean Thriller 'A Hard Day'

This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

The relationship of Cannes to genre cinema is a slightly thorny and contradictory one: while critics exhausted by trying to draw Shakespearean parallels from the latest three-hour-long auteurist magnum opus retreat thankfully into the few straight-up thrillers and horror films that get their time on the Croisette, there is a faint but unmistakable shamefacedness  we all kind of believe we should be seeing something more worthwhile. But then we get to see something like “A Hard Day,” which makes a brilliantly entertaining case for being perhaps the most necessary Cannes 2014 film to date: its cheerfully nutso inventiveness, the ballsy cycling of ramped-up tension with cathartic release, and not least the many belly laughs it elicited has us feeling completely renewed. Bring on the week, we say, because the exhilaration of “A Hard Day” is working even better than the Cannes-standard four espressos to make us think we can withstand anything.

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In fact if we tried even a little bit, we could probably make the case that “A Hard Day,” which plays in Director’s Fortnight and is amazingly only director Kim Seong-hoon’s second film, is so brilliantly adept a corrupt-cop thriller, that it actually transcends its genre blah blah etc. But we’re not going to because that simply wasn’t our experience during the film. We were constantly amazed at its cleverness, at the quality of the filmmaking from the fight sequences, to the many crazy tense set pieces that pepper the narrative like mini-games in a Mario release, and at the relentless brio of the pacing. But deep it is not, nor particularly concerned with character, culture, or even social commentary, some mildly satirical swipes at the compromised Korean police force notwithstanding. “A Hard Day” is a film that sets itself fairly narrow ambitions, achieves all of them and then some, and yet has no pretensions to importance, weightiness, or artistic self-expression. God, we loved it.

It starts with our hero, the morally, professionally, and personally compromised detective lieutenant Ko Gun-su (Lee Sun-kyun) on the phone in his car having been called away from his mother’s funeral preparations (the first third of the film does give some authentic insight into the rigid cultural rituals that surround the death of a family member in Korea, if you really want to reach for some sort of educational value here). Swerving to avoid a Palme Dog contender on the street, he crashes instead into a man, whom he then finds dead on the side of the road. His first instinct to call the police quelled by a sudden phone call from his criminally cute little daughter Mika, Gun-su instead bundles up the body and stuffs it in his trunk, only to be promptly stopped by the police at a roadside pit stop.

Meanwhile, back at the precinct, the Internal Affairs Division has discovered the stash of ill-gotten cash that Gun-su and his equally corrupt team have amassed. Devising ever more elaborate and ridiculous stratagems to get out of the various pickles he’s in, each of which cleverly sows the seeds of the next, Gun-su embarks on his very hard day, which sees him desecrate his mother’s coffin, disinter a corpse twice over, remove a maguffin concealed in a dead man’s ass, blow up a car, and nearly be drowned in a toilet. Oh, and get into several protracted fights with his terminator-like adversary and ultimately end up an unlikely crusader for two things that couldn’t be further from his agenda as a cop: truth and justice.

After the first act ended and the initial problem was literally laid to rest, we did wonder momentarily how the film was possibly going to maintain that level of tension and kinetic engagement. But it’s a remarkably well-constructed, well-written movie that manages to keep you with it, somehow investing in the stakes of the spiraling situations even though those situations are patently absurd. Marked by cinematographic flourishes, edited tightly and for maximum clarity, perhaps the most lovable aspect of the film is its humor and its odd, early-Tarantino-esque eye for the quirky detail that makes even the most ridiculous set piece feel human and absurd, the way reality is absurd.

So a guard doesn’t simply hand over a set of keys, he slides them down a hallway, bouncing them off the wall in a practiced gesture; Mika’s crawling soldier toy becomes a key prop, but its noisy shooting nearly undoes the whole convoluted plan; thread breaks; wood splits; and a gun’s trigger gets snagged on a very fateful screw. The jokes are often visual, but occasionally a deadpan-delivered zinger (all the cast, as they need to, play the material totally straight) brought the house down too. Like when Gun-su’s chief, trying to persuade him to stay on, appeals to what we think is going to be his better nature by saying, “Remember what you first became a police officer for?” Nodding nostalgically, we expect Gun-su to reply with some “wanting to make the world a better-place” or “to make my dad proud”-type comment. Instead he says, a little mistily, “Retirement with full benefits.” “The dream of every civil servant,” sighs the chief in agreement.

Obeying the thriller law of ending multiple times (we counted five separate finales, including one bravura extended fight) through various reversals and resurrections, even that often irritating trope is rendered as a positive as each successive finale has a different kind of entertainment value. And, by that stage anyway, we’d have happily watched the film for the rest of the day. “A Hard Day” knows exactly what it is, and while undoubtedly influenced by Tarantino and John Woo and the Hong Kong school of action filmmaking, this isn’t postmodern deconstruction or referentialism, and the film is never too busy being ironic to be a sincerely great time all by itself. It’s hard to justify giving a high grade to such unapologetically genre fare in the midst of the most prestigious festival of film in the world, but in a fit of fuck ‘em all iconoclasm, we’re going to. Hardly great cinema, or even an important or meaningful film, “A Hard Day” is still probably the best movie we’ll see in Cannes. [A-]

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