For most people, a "hard day" probably means things like not being able to find a parking space, missing your train, the office coffee machine being broken and your boss having a mental breakdown right on the office floor, but for not-totally-honest-but-sort-of-OK Seoul policeman Gun-su “hard” doesn’t quite begin to cover it.
Gun-su is driving furiously and arguing with his wife on the phone because he’s skipped out on his own mother’s funeral to rush to “an important work matter”, which just happens to be that he has the only key to a drawer which contains some dodgy stuff it would have been better for internal affairs not to find - and internal affairs are on their way have a look right now. So pre-occupied with the funeral, probable career-ending misery and the possibility of dropping his fellow squad members right in it, Gun-su is driving way too fast. Consequently he hits something which turns out to be man. Totally stressed out by this point, Gun-su does the most sensible thing possible and puts the body in the boot of his car before continuing on to the police station. Just when he thinks he’s finally gotten away with these very difficult circumstances, things only get worse as the guy that he knocked over turns out to be the wanted felon his now disgraced team have been assigned to track down. Oh, and then it turns out somebody saw him take the body too and is keen on a spot of blackmail. Really, you couldn’t make it up!
Some might say the Korean crime thriller format is all played out by this point, but what A Hard Day brings to the genre is a slice of totally black humour that you rarely see these days. Gun-su is obviously not an honest guy, but he’s not a criminal mastermind either and his fairly haphazard way of finding interesting solutions to serious problems is a joy to watch. This isn’t the first film where someone happens on the idea of hiding a body in a coffin, but it might be the first where said person uses a set of yellow balloons to block a security camera, his daughter’s remote control soldier to pull a body through an air conditioning duct and his shoelaces to prize the wooden nails out of his own mother’s coffin to safely deposit an inconvenient corpse inside. Gun-su (mostly) manages to stay one step ahead of whatever’s coming for him, albeit almost by accident and with a Clouseau-esque ability to emerge unscathed from every deadly scrape. He’s definitely only slightly on the right side of the law, but still you can’t help willing him on in his ever-more dastardly deeds as he tries to outwit his mysterious opponent.
Though it does run a little long refreshingly the plot remains fairly tight, though it is literally one thing after another for poor old Gun-su. A blackly comic police thriller, A Hard Day isn’t claiming to be anything other than a genre piece but it does what it sets out to with a healthy degree of style and confidence. The action scenes are well done and often fairly spectacular but they never dominate the film, taking a back seat to some cleverly crafted character dynamics. Frequent Hong Sang-soo collaborator Lee Sung-kyun excels as the slippery Gun-su, whose chief weapon is his utter desperation while his nemesis, played by Cho Jing-woong, turns in an appropriately menacing turn as a seemingly omniscient master criminal.
Yes, A Hard Day contains a number of standard genre tropes that some may call clichés, but it uses them with such finesse that impossible not to be entertained by them. Bumbling, corrupt policemen come up against unstoppable criminals only to find their detective bones reactivating at exactly the wrong moment and threatening to make everything ten times worse while the situation snowballs all around them. However, A Hard Day also has its cheeky and subversive side and ends on a brilliantly a-moralistic note that one doesn’t normally associate with Korean cinema in particular. It may not be the most original of films, but A Hard Day is heaps of morbidly comic fun!
A Hard Day was screened as part of the 2014 London Film Festival and the ninth annual London Korean Film Festival. It will be released on DVD from Studiocanal on 8th December 2014.