A man stuck in a time-loop relives the same day over and over as he tries to save his daughter from a traffic accident…
The Groundhog Day-style premise of having a protagonist stuck in a time-loop and reliving the same period over and over again until they figure out why they’re trapped has proved a universally popular one, with the same gambit being used by directors from countries around the world, in different genres and with different budget levels. A Day is the latest from Korea, marking the debut of writer-director Jo Sun-ho, and starring Kim Myung-min (V.I.P.) as the unfortunate man in question, trying desperately to figure out how to save his young daughter from getting hit by a taxi. A fast-paced and tricky thriller, the film has gone down well at international festivals, premiering at the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival, where it won the Bronze Audience Award in the Best Asian Feature Film category, and winning a Special Mention at Fantasporto in 2018.
The film opens with famous surgeon Kim Joon-young (Kim Myung-min) returning from an overseas trip doing charity work, heading from the airport to meet his young daughter Eun-jung (Jo Eun-hyung, The Handmaiden), who he hasn’t exactly been the best of fathers to. Driving to meet her, he comes across a traffic accident, and is horrified to discover that she has been hit by a taxi and killed. Before he can do anything else, he wakes up, finding himself back on the plane as it lands, and though he rushes to try and save Eun-jung, he fails, and ends up back on the plane yet again. Repeating the same cycle over and over without managing to keep her from being hit by a taxi, Kim is at a loss, until he meets ambulance driver Lee Min-chul (Byun Yo-han, Will You Be There?), who seems to be similarly stuck, and the two men team up to try and solve the puzzle.
With films like A Day, where the viewer essentially knows that the protagonist will keep going through the same events until they find the key, execution is everything, as is the degree to which the writer and director are able to suspend disbelief and generate tension through repetition. Thankfully, Jo Sun-ho seems very aware of this, and gets down to business immediately, doing a fantastically efficient and gripping job of getting the ball rolling – surprisingly, and pleasingly, Kim doesn’t spend a whole act refusing to believe his situation, and takes only a couple of whirls on the merry-go-round to accept what’s going on. Jo’s sense of pacing is excellent, and he keeps the revelations coming thick and fast without ever overplaying his hand, and the film as a whole is tightly constructed and reasonably consistent. There’s enough action to distract from the parts which don’t make sense, and with the film clocking in at a lean ninety minutes, the viewer isn’t given much time to dwell upon its imponderables as it builds towards a satisfying conclusion.
For a first time writer and director, Jo shows real confidence, and the film is well-directed and looks great, making the most of its budget and limited locations. Jo also gets good performances from both Kim Myung-min and Byun Yo-han, whose bonding is believable despite their surreal situation, and who manage to add a few emotional notes to their escalating desperation – matters are perhaps helped by the fact that the two starred together in the drama series Six Flying Dragons back in 2015. Indeed, a few plot holes aside, the only area where the film perhaps falls down is with the soundtrack, which never really fits, getting far too sappy in places and detracting from the tension.
This is a minor criticism, however, and A Day is a highly-accomplished debut for Jo Sun-ho, and one of the better time-loop films from the last few years. Taut, fast-moving and intelligently intricate, it’s a fun and entertaining film which benefits considerably from its short running time, something which sets it apart from most other Korean thrillers of late, which have needlessly tended towards the two hours plus mark.