Every so often, I see a film and think that the title is a perfect encapsulation of its very existence. If I were to name the film, those are exactly the words I would have chosen. A Hard Day is that exactly, in part because it’s a massive understatement. It’s a hilariously perfect name because it is a Hard day but isn’t just a hard Day. It starts off as a Hard Night, and then it gets to the day… and then there’s another night. And then there’s a day. And with each new event, you think, “Oh wow… Well, it can’t get any worse than that.”
And then it gets worse.
[For the next week, we will be covering the 2014 New York Korean Film Festival. For more information, check here. For all of our coverage, click here.]
A Hard Day (Kkeutkkaji Ganda | 끝까지 간다)
Director: Seong-hoon Kim
Country: South Korea
A Hard Day would be funny if it weren’t so sad. I mean, it still is kind of funny, but it’s not really “Ha ha” funny so much as “?!?!?!” funny. Go Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) is having a bit of a hard life, what with his mother dying and everything, but that’s just the start of his issues. In fact, it’s the least of his issues. And when the least of your issues is the tragic death of your mother? Well, that’s just a hard day right there.
It all starts when Go Geon-soo hits someone with his car on the way to his mom’s funeral. And it’s not really his fault, because it was nighttime and the guy did sorta just run out in front of him, but now the guy is dead and that’s what matters. Then a series of unfortunate events befalls him before the big one strikes: Someone knows what he did, and begins harassing him at work. And here is where things really start to take off.
There are a couple of moments in A Hard Day that shocked me not just because they were shocking moments in and of themselves but because of the way they played out onscreen. I have talked a lot about long takes in the past, but two moments in particular here are spectacular uses of long takes not because the camera does anything particularly unique but because I immediately followed the moment up with, “Could they have done that more than once?” And if it was CG in either case, it was some spectacular use of CG, because even though one of the two things looked a little bit off at first, it looked less like straight up CG and more like a very specifically crafted launching mechanism. (Honestly, it probably would have been easier to just blow the thing up.)
When you watch a film about things getting worse, you start to guess what’s going to happen next. “How will he get screwed over this time? What other horrible thing will he be subjected to and/or forced to do to get himself out of it?” And there are moments of setup, where you know something bad is about to happen and it almost dares you to guess what it could be. But your guess will be wrong, because what actually happens is even more ridiculous than you expect. One of those two aforementioned shots literally dropped my jaw, because I had been guessing and guessing and guessing what was about to happen, and then it turns out I was so wrong and the people behind that sequence are both creative geniuses and deeply disturbed individuals.
Which is probably an accurate way of describing the entire series of events. Each moment is extremely well constructed, and even if bits and pieces of Geon-soo’s plan don’t technically make sense and the things he does go beyond what’s really possible, it works in context and that’s what matters. Importantly, it never veers into the realm of straight-up unbelievability, even at its craziest. This is crucial to its impact, because if suddenly aliens came and abducted Geon-soo or something, then it wouldn’t have just been a matter of “WHAT?!” it would have been “Oh, bullshit!” And by avoiding that line, A Hard Day makes itself a consistently compelling and surprising thriller.
Much of the film’s success hinges on Lee Sun-kyun’s performance, because the character of Geon-soo has to be sympathetic for the film to work. If the audience isn’t invested in him or his hard day, then it’s just a cat and mouse game without stakes. You have to want to see Geon-soo succeed. And you do, for two reasons: One: Lee Sun-kyun is lovable. He’s a good looking guy, but he’s not rugged. He’s more cute than handsome, and it results in him appearing to be a fish out of water, which in and of itself makes him sympathetic. His performance bears that out, as he runs from scene to scene like a chicken with its head cut off.
Two: he’s never scary. Even when he’s doing things that are terrible, they aren’t horrific. He’s kind of a bad guy, but he’s not evil. Even when he goes to a place that might seem like too far, it doesn’t really feel that way. Geon-soo appears justified in his actions throughout. Plus, they’re all motivated by fear, which is an emotion pretty much anybody can relate to. You can say that he should have done this or shouldn’t have done that, but he’s afraid (terrified, even), and when you’re terrified you don’t always make the best decisions. That’s understandable.
And because it’s understandable, you want to see Geon-soo make it through. You root for him every step of the way, following him through thick and thin. And when it’s all over and you pick up your jaw off the floor, you breathe a sigh of relief and thank whatever you believe in that your life isn’t as bad as his.[A Hard Day will be screening at 9:40 PM on Friday, November 21 at BAM.]