AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review
If there’s one genre which stands above the rest as having the best chance to connect with me, it’s a thriller. It’s why Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most enduring cinematic figures in my life. The rules of the genre handed down by “The Master of Suspense” are still alive today. Hitchcock broke down his definition of the words “surprise” and “suspense” to Francois Truffaut in the book of interviews between the two directors, “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” “Surprise” is when two people are sitting at a table and a bomb underneath it blows up. “Suspense” is when the audience knows the bomb is there, but the characters don’t. Right now, no one is making thrillers as taut and gripping as the filmmakers of South Korea. They come in the form of the twisted and depraved, like Park Chan-wook’s seminal “Oldboy.” They can be more sick and more depraved, like Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil.” Or they can be comic-adapted sci-fi fantasies like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.” Either way, they all seem to center around a flawed detective. You’d think this could get to be as tired and stale as a man continually put on a cape to save the world and you’d be right, unless excellent craftsmanship differentiates it from the others. Director Kim Seong-hun’s “A Hard Way” does just that.
Ko Gun-su (Lee Seon-gyun) is a detective whose mother has just died. He stops for a drink on the way to her funeral to try trapping some of his emotions inside. It seems to have impaired him in the desired way, but with that comes unintended effects, too (as Homer Simpson once told Marge, “remember when I took that home winemaking course and forgot how to drive?”). Detective Ko swerves out of the way of a stray dog in the middle of the street (that’s good!), but hits the dog’s owner, instead, killing him (that’s bad!). As if losing your mother isn’t hard enough to handle on a given day, imagine being the reason someone else will join her in the grave.
Ko is not a righteous character. From the outset, its’ extremely difficult to root for a guy who accidentally kills someone and mourns the loss of life by shoving the body into his trunk. He also happens to be a corrupt cop, responsible for distributing ill-gotten cash to his law enforcement cohorts. However, Lee plays Ko as if Pusha T from the Clipse went solo – no Malice. Lee is apparently a star known for his turns in romantic comedies. His natural likeability and his previous onscreen reputation (though likely unknown to American audiences) provide Ko with an endearing quality, regardless of whether or not the camera is following him around.
In addition to focusing his narrative around a character with which audiences may not identify, director and co-writer, Kim, pulls a trick even most Korean films of this type don’t truly manage. He imbues it with comedy.
The first third or so of the film is hilarious. Though it’s certainly not a comedy (in so much as you probably wouldn’t classify Quentin Tarantino’s films as “comedies” – although Q.T. himself would), the movie knows it’s funny. It just doesn’t reach for jokes. Everything is completely organic in that the humor never undercuts the suspense. Instead, it lightens the mood just enough to let the audience know it’s okay to root for Ko. Then, before the laugher fades and smiles wear off, it puts you right back on the edge of your seat.
Kim follows the Hitchcockian tenets of both surprise and suspense beautifully. The reason you, dear reader, are only getting one paragraph of plot from me is because I don’t want you to know where the bombs are hidden. Kim knows how to set them off just right. The structure of his script and placement of this camera are so finely tuned, you are fully prepared to give yourself over to his visual orchestra.
I mentioned earlier three films from Korean auteurs I happen to love. I also know those aren’t necessarily for all audiences. Though “Snowpiercer” is an English-language film and “Oldboy” was remade to the dismissal of American audiences (though I still loved the story) and “I Saw the Devil” is slated for remake, “A Hard Day” is almost certainly more accessible for a broader audience than any of the three. Hell, there was at least one child at the AFI screening I attended (whose parent I prejudicially loathe) and it didn’t seem to be an issue. Though a Hollywood reinterpretation may seem like a great compliment to the film, the best one I can give is, “A Hard Day” is a movie which anyone can watch and enjoy. It’s a complete crowd-pleaser, requiring zero pandering to get there. It can be the gateway to discovering more Korean gems. Might I suggest starting with thrillers?