When was the last time you saw a modern thriller with so much narrative and visual wit that you were simultaneously laughing and crying out in fear — the kind the Coen brothers often make and Spielberg when he’s in a Hitchcockian mood? There’s one in theaters now from South Korea: Kim Seong-hun’s hairpin bloodbath Hard Day, which charts approximately 24 tumultuous hours in the life of a police detective named Choi (Lee Sun-kyun) who attempts to dispose of a body he hit while driving — slightly inebriated — to the funeral home to bury his beloved mother. The first half hour has an uproarious exponential logic: For every action that Choi takes, there’s a greater and opposite reaction, meaning every problem solved creates two more and the corpses multiply. Lee is a marvelous farceur, frozen-faced while physically hyper-reactive. He’ll have a moment of stillness and an exhale of relief — and then disaster will announce itself, the exhale will be strangled in his throat, and he’ll spring into his next desperate bit of improvisation.
I must keep this review short to keep from orienting you: Thrillers are always more fun when they jump back and forth between crystal-clarity and sense-scrambling upheaval. But I can say that A Hard Day’s first half is more exhilarating than its second, where we do get our bearings and the film turns into a mouse-and-sadistic-cat game. Even then, though, the discomfiting omnipresence of said cat is enough to keep you rattled, and the incongruous mixture of messy carnage and visual elegance enough to keep you tittering nervously. No matter what is going down, we see it through the eyes of poor Choi, who is never quite on top of the situation.
My greatest fear is that an English language director and actor of lesser gifts will remake A Hard Day instead of profiting from its example. But even a copy would be better than most of the bloated, inelegant thrillers that come out of Hollywood these days (most of them aimed—ironically—at the lucrative Asian market demanding IMAX, 3-D, and stuff blowing up). It’s our sense of adventure that matters in the end. We must cultivate confusion and dare to be disoriented.