One doesn’t watch A Hard Day conventionally caring too much about what happens to the characters. Reminiscent of the Norwegian Insomnia or of the early work of the Coen brothers, or, more recently, of Headhunters and Big Bad Wolves, director Kim Seong-hun’s film is a sprite, engagingly ruthless comic thriller with a perspective that’s perched from a God’s-eye view, encouraging the audience to regard its extraordinarily flawed protagonist intellectually, rather than emotionally, as an insect squirming around on a glass exhibition slide.
The title, a bit of tongue-in-cheeky understatement, doesn’t begin to adequately address protagonist Gun-soo’s (Lee Sun-kyun) awful run of luck. The film kicks off in media res, with Gun-soo racing his sporty black car down a curving road in an effort to get to his mother’s funeral on time, after a few telltale nips of something stiff so as to numb the pain of the situation. On the way, he almost hits a dog that stands out in the middle of an intersection and regards Gun-soo with amusing nonchalance. Distracted with evading the dog, our hero promptly swerves into an unidentified man, killing him. His survival instincts kicking in, Gun-soo stuffs his victim into the trunk of his car only to drive straight into a DUI checkpoint, encountering cops who’re understandably suspicious of his cracked windshield.
A Hard Day’s subsequent particulars don’t bear ruining. It’s a well-oiled contraption that’s primarily concerned with springing one twist after another, as Gun-soo’s inventive reactions are met with redoubling disaster. The film grows more confident with each ludicrous new wrinkle. One watches partially to see how long Kim can continue to satiate his penchant for hairpin logistics. Gun-soo’s solution for disposing of the hit-and-run victim’s body, for instance, is a perverse and inventive highpoint that fuses the physical wit of a Looney Tunes gag with the fantastical griminess of Edgar Allen Poe’s revenge stories. The film’s sense of humor pivots on an appealing contradiction that also recalls Seth Rogen’s oeuvre, as Gun-soo’s an intelligent, highly inventive, and resourceful idiot.
What A Hard Day pointedly lacks is moralizing, an absence which serves as its own kind of roundabout ethical code. The film’s about the illusion of righteousness, understanding morality to exist in an evolving vacuum of relativity and opportunity. Cops are matter-of-factly crooked, victims immediately look for their “play” in any given situation. Kim knowingly exploits our suspicion that everyone’s fucking us over, borrowing various noir and wrong-man tropes, flipping them on their head to drain them of standard, self-pitying good/bad orientations. In a more conventional genre outing, Gun-soo would be the villain, but he gets to be the hero by default because everyone else around him is worse than he is.
Kim keeps the chaos moving at a breathless tempo. The filmmaker’s a remarkably fluid orchestrator of action kinetics, always springing his surprises a beat faster than one expects, only to occasionally slow things down so as to prevent the audience from acclimating to his quicksilver timing. A murder weapon that comes tumbling literally out of the sky appears about a full five seconds later than we expect it to. A van’s explosion is timed with a nightmarish precision that, for some subterranean reason, is also puckishly funny. Perhaps because Kim has the wit to show the remains of the van as they tumble awkwardly down a hill, capping a phenomenal, self-consciously Hitchcockian set piece with an unexpectedly commonplace payoff. Throughout, the images have a sleek, silvery sexiness that informs the debauchery with a comic aura of impersonality, intensifying the film’s bracing lack of sentimentality.
It’s Lee’s disciplined screwball performance that ties all of A Hard Day’s inventions together, investing the film’s playful heartlessness with visceral panic. The actor plays a villain as a henpecked nice guy, because Gun-soo truly doesn’t know that he isn’t the latter, this delusion serving as a self-fulfilling prophecy: He is likable. This irony is the wellspring of the film’s various shades of humor. A Hard Day is ultimately a fleet, airy parody of self-entitlement, though the carnage still dramatically registers. The filmmakers walk as many tightropes as Gun-soo does, and one gratefully submits to their dexterity.
The image boasts a gorgeously slick sheen, particularly in the foreground, with little discernible grain. Blacks and silvers are richly burnished, lending the film a memorable air of decadence. Facial textures, which are greatly important to a film so concerned with suffering, are, well, painfully explicit. One can make out individual beads of sweat and wrinkles of brows. There are two soundtracks, and both are finely mixed, with the hefty diegetic effects occupying center ring, most notably in the brutal climax, which seemingly incorporates every household object but a kitchen sink. (Though a public bathroom toilet is utilized earlier in the film, accompanied by vivid drowning noises that are justly honored by this Blu-ray.) An attractive disc.
"The Making of A Hard Day" is a short piece that features evocative footage of the staging of the film’s most striking scenes. Director Kim Seong-hun and actors Lee Sun-kyun and Cho Jin-woong wax eloquently about character motivation, the importance of dramatic entrances, and the manipulation of spatial logistics. They’re clearly talented and intelligent men, which is why it’s a shame that we don’t get to hear more from them. This supplement runs 17 minutes, and there appears to be quite a bit more material to cover. "Bad vs. Worst" focuses solely on Lee and Cho’s characters, but doesn’t add much context. The deleted scenes are interesting for revealing how much of the story was retrospectively, and wisely, pruned from the final cut, which abounds in quite a bit more mystery of the unsaid. This disc is practically begging for an audio commentary.
The supplements could use a little more protein, but A Hard Day is a terrific, unusually funny Korean thriller that’s richly deserving of a cult altar. Seek it out.