We talk to the director of A Hard Day about the inspiration for his dark comedy thriller…
If Kim Seong-hun is not a director you’ve heard of, that’s okay. It’s been some time since his debut film as director How The Lack Of Love Affects Two Men. Eight years in fact. But Kim has finally followed that with an action thriller that caused a stir at the Directors Fortnight at Cannes this year and has been slowly and steadily picking up interest, A Hard Day. With the film soon to be released in the UK by STUDIOCANAL, suffice it to say you’re going to be hearing a lot more about him soon.
As we meet for an interview in The May Fair Hotel, ahead of the UK Premiere of the film as part of the London Film Festival, I offer Kim the choice of iconic film star backed business cards from the ever-growing collection. He sticks with the top card, Song Kang-ho in The Good, The Bad, The Weird with a telling comment: ‘Great actor, but very expensive!’
Your first films as director and even assistant director were all comedies, and at first glance you’d expect A Hard Day to be a very straightforward action film, but it’s not – it has some deeply, deeply funny moments. Did you set out to make the film so darkly comic, and where did the story actually come from?
Because my skin is so dark I really like black comedy (sorry about that joke). The time between the first film and this film is quite large, so a lot of my interests had changed, and in order to compensate for the weakness and flaws in my first film I really tried hard to overcome them with this film.
So this film started from a very small situation. I was watching Volver by Pedro Almodovar with Penélope Cruz, and this scene where she buries his corpse by the river. And because in Korea we have monsoon seasons I thought when the rivers are flooded the corpse will come up and she will be found out. I experienced this anxiety that was completely different from the film. I then began to think about what would be the perfect way to conceal a corpse, and that would be inside a grave, and on this earth if there’s anybody who can hide your sin for all eternity that would be your mother, she would unconditionally cover for all your sins. So then I had this unholy thought of hiding a corpse in your mothers grave, which is how the film started. My mother is still alive! [laughs]
From there you create a lot of complex scenes, full of coincidences and chance. How did you come to construct them, and are there any in particular you are proudest of?
Now that I look back retrospectively I see flaws in all of the story and feel quite embarrassed by it. However, the scene that I feel is really the heart of the film and the framework that sets the tone is when we’re at the storage room for the corpse, and all the sequence that happens when [the lead] is trying to cover up the body and all the sins that he further commits. For me that was a very important scene, and one that I have the most affection for.
Coming from the comedy films you’d worked on previously, did you find the action scenes difficult to shoot, or was it no different?
I don’t see it as being largely different now, but there was always this risk factor that people can get hurt. There was a high level of tension for me, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t very easy. Given the fact that people can get hurt, I would request to do the scene again and again in order to get the scene exactly as I wanted. That wasn’t a very easy choice for me.
And of course the film has a lot more pyrotechnics and so on than you’d probably done before. Had you filmed any fight scenes previously, such as the one that takes place in the apartment?
Personally no, but I watched action film and I’ve always thought if I had to shoot an action film what would I do. So I had a lot of indirect experiences of imagining constructing these scenes. And also when I was young I had experiences of fighting my friend who was sitting next to me, which is of course informative [laughs]. For example, biting his head, etc, when were ‘yay high’.
And you’re still friends?
My closest friend.
The lead role of Detective Ko is quite an anti-hero. How did you come to cast Lee Sun-kyun, and what attracted him to the role?
Previously the actor Lee Sun-kyun is seen as a romantic guy in Korea; typically known to be in romantic comedies rather than action films. His image is one of being very kind and gentle. However the protagonist here, as you’ve mentioned, is very immoral and behaves in illegal ways, so I needed that image he has in order to persuade the audience to also have sympathy and affinity with his character. So firstly I needed to borrow that image, but secondly his attitude towards acting and his style of acting is very realistic and extremely subtle, and he’s an excellent actor in that regard. It’s non-exaggerated so that was extremely helpful for our film to come across as being a fake, so I think he contributed in that way.
You also cast Cho Jin-Woong, who makes a fantastic villain as Park. His roles are getting bigger, and your film will definitely help that. How did you recognise he’d do such a great job of it?
So I think character that Cho Jin-Woong plays is probably the one that is most film like in its construction within this film. What I needed was someone who wasn’t exaggerated and fake in his acting, and Cho doesn’t have to do much to deliver a lot of force in his acting, which is why I cast him. And of course he has a large physical presence but in addition to that he’s also very subtle as well which is the best combination.
He’s an interesting mix of large, but often quite gentle as well.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the film is that you really play with, or even subvert, what you would normally expect from the thriller genre. How much did you set out to do that?
I’m not sure if it’s like this in the UK, but in Korea we have the nine o’clock news, which is very gentle, and immediately afterwards we have a comedy show called The Gag Concert, so I was curious about what would happen if the two were continuous without any breaks between. So we have humour that appears unexpectedly without breaking the overall framework of the film.
There’s one scene in particular I really loved that’s a great example of this playfulness. When Detective Ko is chasing an informant, and rather than keep the action close and quickly edited, you pull back the camera, to show both pursuer and pursued on different sides of the screen as they catch their breath. It’s a complete change of pace. Can you tell me how that scene came about?
So that was intended from the scripting stage, where I wanted to give, like you mentioned, a change in the pace, and in the next scene Detective Ko is threatening this informant from somewhere very high up in the building, and the tempo changes in the film. So that long shot acted as a bridge between the two, which was needed in the film. And overall throughout the film I had a lot of scenes where it looked like the camera was looking down from somewhere quite high up, where there was a CCTV for example, and the sense of someone always observing you. So I often use these long shots.
And was that to imply a bit of paranoia in Detective Ko’s character?
Not fundamentally only for that purpose, but that was definitely one of the reasons why I employed that technique.
So what were the other reasons for using that technique then?
I think that the answer can be seen in terms of format and questions about content of the film. So firstly using longs shots in real time offers an intense, powerful effect that you can’t achieve with editing. And secondly in terms of content of the film a lot of the characters commit very secretive acts and secretive sins, so of course it can refer to the character of Park observing Ko throughout the film, but it can also refer to a god or a deity up there watching everything. It can also refer to the audience watching everything as well, that there is always somebody contently watching you.
I wondered if you are aware of the English title? I believe the original Korean title more literally translates as Take It to the End, but the English title A Hard Day implies it happens in one day, which it doesn’t.
I agree with you totally, maybe we should change it to ‘Hard Days’ [laughs]. I believe the distributor decided the English title, and they asked for my consent, of course, but my English isn’t that great so I just agreed [laughs].
I wonder if you could tell me about the big gap between films? Did this film take a long time to get off the ground, what was the situation?
So that large gap between was half intentional and half unintentional. My last film didn’t receive positive reviews, nor was it commercially a good success. So I needed a lot of time to reflect back on my mistakes and flaws, and of course in order to secure the funding for this film I really needed to have a great script ready.
We had two Olympics between my films [laughs], so I will make sure my next film is before the next Olympics!
Which brings me nicely to my last question: do you have an idea for your next film, and will it include comedy again?
Yes, my next film has already been decided, and overall it will be a dark film, but of course there will be comedy as is compulsory with life.
A Hard Day screens as part of the 9th London Korean Film Festival 2014 on 8th November and will be released in the UK on DVD on 8th December by STUDIOCANAL. You can book tickets online.
Thanks to STUDIOCANAL and John Scrafton at Emfoundation, and of course to director Kim Seong-hun for his time. Main image: Paul Quinn, Hangol Celluloid.