As with the other recent films I have reviewed, I saw this film in raw Japanese, so even with my pretty decent Japanese, there were some bits of the plot that I am sure escaped me. You can take the following review with some salty aftertaste as a result.
While South Korea and Japan have had a long and troubled political relationship, in recent years their entertainment cross pollination has become quite intense, with considerable mutual interest in media properties operating in both countries. One of the earliest film remakes that crossed the seas from Japan to South Korea was The Ring Virus (1999), a remake of Japan’s extremely popular Ring (1998)—co-funded by Japan’s Kadokawa and South Korea’s AFDF, which also teamed up on Takashi Miike’s Audition in the same calendar year. For some time South Korean cinema seemed to be following Japan’s lead, with various adaptations of manga ranging from 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) to Antique (2008)—and of course the Cannes Grand Jury Prize winning Old Boy (2003), the latter of which was a gritty adaptation which has so eclipsed the source material that the film’s famously shocking twist has become its most famous element, and it wasn’t even in the original manga. But these days the floodgates have turned, with South Korean media becoming overwhelmingly popular amongst the youth in Japan. Japan has enthusiastically embraced Korean pop media, importing K-dramas by the boatload, ratcheting up a passion for learning Korean, and K-pop stars becoming fashion and culture icons in the Land of the Rising Sun. All throughout my second life in Japan, from 2015 to today, I have had just oodles of students obsessed with K-pop and the idol culture from the land of kimchi and bulgogi, and the trend shows little signs of waning.
So it should come as no surprise that Korean movies sometimes also inspire Japanese remakes—especially in the wake of Parasite (2019) and it’s unprecedented Best Picture Oscar win and worldwide celebration. However, the occasional Japanese re-imagining of a South Korean property goes back years, with an early example being 2001’s The Happiness of the Katakuris, which functioned as a loose remake of the 1998 South Korean film The Quiet Family. Other examples include Monsterz (2014) (a remake of the South Korean film Haunters ), Sing My Life (2016) (a remake of the South Korean film Miss Granny ), and Memoirs of a Murderer (2017) (a remake of the South Korean film Confession of a Murderer ). For what it’s worth, I remember seeing Memoirs of a Murder advertised heavily upon its release, and one of my students at the time went to see it, finding the film overly grotesque. The latest South Korean import, however, takes a new flavor—a police/crime thriller. Released on May 19, 2023, Hard Days was adapted from director/writer Seong Hun Kim’s A Hard Day (2014) (modern audiences might be more familiar with his work on the historical zombie drama series Kingdom). The original A Hard Day has proven so popular that it also received remakes from China (in 2017), the Philippines (in 2021), and France (in 2022). Directed by Michihito Fujii (Ghost in the Shell: SAC_2045-Sustainable War ), who also co-wrote the film with Kenya Hirata (one of the writers of the Japanese remake of Confession of a Murderer), Hard Days takes the looping, sordid plot of the original and wrenches up the grime and wicked twists. As I have been trying to catch a Japanese film in theaters every week here, I saw the gut-punching trailer for the film repeatedly, and the grimy, desperate action-panic hinted at in the ads kicked my adrenaline and drove me into a comfy movie seat just a few days after release. Given that the original A Hard Day is well-regarded and beloved by fans of the thriller genre, it can be easy to feel cynical about a remake, but I was pleasantly surprised by Hard Days and its flashy, impassioned, and manic stylings. The film has some fine performances, manages to yank the story in a few novel directions, and occasionally even beats out the South Korean film for impact and suspense… though it doesn’t quite smash that landing.
The story for each iteration of the film is mostly the same. Here, corrupt Detective Yuji Kudo (pop singer Jun’ichi Okada, The Fable movies) is rushing to see his mother on her death bed, but soon gets distracted by phone calls informing him that the matriarch has passed away and that he is under investigation for bribery. Kudo is understandably upset and not the most attentive to the road ahead and narrowly misses hitting a young woman who darts out into the road. As he is recovering from that near-death experience, his car slams into a young man (Hayato Isomura from the Tokyo Revengers films) who stumbles out of the darkness right in front of his speeding vehicle. Kudo rushes out into the road and finds the dude quite dead, and so the detective jams the corpse in his trunk before finding an inventive final hiding place… in his mother’s casket, scheduled to be immolated. But unfortunately for Kudo, somebody saw him whack the young man with his car—and that someone begins hounding Kudo to turn over the corpse, escalating the situation into increasingly violent and frankly lethal levels until the pair are in an outright death battle until the end (the Japanese title is Saigo Made Iku, which means “Go to the end”—and it’s an appropriate name for the maniacal thrill-a-minute pic we have here).
My absolute favorite part of Hard Days was Go Ayano as antagonist Yazaki, a fellow cop who is even worse than the already morally messed-up Kudo. Ayano has about mastered this kind of dark, violent baddy role ever since his turn as the comically evil Sato in the live action Ajin: Demi-Human film back in 2017, though I preferred him here as he achieves a greater level of sophistication and cool. Yazaki in his black fashion is crazed and fierce, facial tics marking out his rising rage until he boils over into a flurry of rabid violence. For much of the film he stalks around with a stern, powerful electricity—channeling a fiery version of Toht from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Okada as slimy detective Kudo is not as endearing, indulging in that occasional bane of so much Japanese cinema—the wacky overreaction. Nevertheless, I liked his sweaty, roughened exterior, and how he looks like a halfway drunk and edgy cop who hasn’t showered in days. Akira Emoto (you may remember his butt from Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla ) also appears as a sinister old dude menacing around in the shadows, and Emoto just has such charisma even in his old age. Man, I would accept him as the Japanese Emperor Palpatine with that crumpled-paper grin of evil he’s got. Ryoko Hirosue as Kudo’s longsuffering wife Misako unfortunately mostly exists as a background frown, though she does furrow her brow with the best of them. Overall, none of the actors really biffs their part, and the film boils together as a pretty nasty, fun time.
As this was the first version of A Hard Day that I watched, I was not familiar with the narrative swerves and kickbacks, and many are quite satisfying and even surprising. Most of the story beats come straight from the South Korean film, though Hard Days swaps out the dog in the street with a duplicitous young lady, and in the original there was no wife for the protagonist in the picture (here their relationship becomes a key character element by the end). Hard Days is a bit less humorous than A Hard Day, and I appreciated that the business from the original with a remote-control toy in the air conditioning was excised. One of the bigger innovations of Hard Days, though, is that Yazaki gets more backstory and is more of a fleshed-out person with pressures and a home life of his own, and the film also adds extra layers of skullduggery and competing conspiracy to varying effect. Mostly I liked a lot of the changes, though the ending is arguably the worst bit as it just goes too far with a good thing (oddly enough, I think the ending action to the French remake Restless might be the best of the lot, despite the film failing as a whole).
Generally, I have found that South Korean films do not shy away from the yick when it comes to violence and squicky scenes, but Hard Days adds a little extra grotesquery with some brutal bits and a nastier “key” used for an important plot point, and a healthy budget allows for more elaborate action sequences and explosions. The sparer action of A Hard Day got the job done back in the day, and many I am sure will prefer the restraint of the older film (such as James Hadfield did, writing for the Japan Times), but I found myself on board with the increasing absurdity of Hard Days for the most part and it really won me over.
A big part of my ability to latch on to the exaggerated goings-on stemmed from an appreciation of Takashi Ohmama’s bombastic score. Ohmama, who also scored the Suicide Forest Village and Ox-Head Village from the Village of Terror trilogy, here provides a ululating guitar with scintillating dynamic twanging chords, like we are watching an off-kilter hillbilly Western. It took me a while to groove with Ohmama’s rhythmic choices, but once I threw myself into the spirit of the ringing rock action backdrop, I was riding high on the adrenaline feels.
While I don’t think Hard Days will garner a wide swath of fans like the South Korean original, it still clutches at and mostly achieves a white-knuckled pitch of its own that makes it a better watch than, say, Japan’s Infernal Affairs made-for-TV remake Double Face. It’s also certainly a more original and compelling vision than France’s Restless and takes more chances with the material. Hard Days eschews some of the sillier humorous touches (like the gags with the detective’s daughter’s toys), and adds enough background detail to garnish the action with some additional emotional striking power. I was delighted to have such a nice time at the movies with this Japanese-recooked kimchi actioner, and it reminded me of the simple pleasure of a ratcheting nail-chewer with a few sharp performances and plot-whirling shock events to shake the viewer’s attention right up to the bonkers conclusion.