Writer Cho Sun-Ho makes his feature debut with a time-loop movie.
When a child dies in an accident, regardless of fault, the parents will live that horrible day over and over again in their mind. They will wonder if only something was different, a phone call, a change of plans, an extra hug on the way out the door, might things have been different? It is a feeling of powerlessness when the universe is cruel and as good as any notion of what Hell probably is.
Humanitarian doctor Jun-Yong is flying back to Seoul from New York City after giving a big talk to the United Nations. Due to a series of small events, a medical emergency he handles at the de-boarding gate, a surprise press conference in the airport concourse, and a clumsy parking agent, he becomes later and later meeting up with his young daughter, Eun-Jung for her birthday. The final straw is a serious car accident nearby the place he plans to meet her after school. As he rushes to the scene to help once again, he discovers to his horror that one of the victims is his own daughter. In this terrible moment of grief and pain, Jun-Yong blinks, and wakes up again on that plane from New York.
The Groundhog Day formula, where a character has to repeat a hellish day until they learn something about life, has been stretched and morphed into many things. There was the Harold Ramis comedy from the early 1990s, but more recently, there was a lose-your-viriginity sex comedy Premature, the science fiction Hollywood blockbusters Edge of Tomorrow and Source Code, teen drama Before I Fall, Tom Tykwer's German cult classic Run Lola Run, an Italian entry called Stork Day, and even a hoilday picture called Christmas Do-Over.
South Korea gets in on the party in a big way with glossy, smart, and sentimental blockbuster A Day, the feature debut from writer Cho Sun-Ho. As these time-loop movies go, the details in the original setup must be clearly laid out so they can be tweaked on each cycle, and there must be a feeling of progress and frustration as we walk through possibilities. These are handled with gusto, and in the film's rather unique spin on the genre, to give any away here would not be polite, but suffice it to say, there is more than one 'sit up in your seat and lean in' moment as you have to re-evaluate the possibilities of what can be done with the concept.
The screenplay is a doozy. Besides a race against the clock thriller, there is a violent revenge story lurking inside A Day, and an ethical nightmare scenario as well. Alas, these more interesting avenues (or cul-de-sacs) take a back seat to the sentimental crowd-pandering nonsense that is part and parcel for expensive Korean blockbusters. And where Cho's images and set-ups are quite serviceable, they lack a certain visual panache the script demands. Great for a quick buck at the box office, less so for a lasting classic.
The final third left me wanting for the film that could have been, leaving me with fantasies of what a veteran visual stylist like Kim Ji-Woon or Gore Verbinski might do with The Langoliers style in-between spaces in the film, and for characters to wander through their own psyches and interact with other lost souls. Case in point, Verbinski has played with these visually disturbing, existential head spaces in Rango and At Worlds End.
At the risk of reviewing the movie I wanted versus the movie I got, I will come back to the theme of what it is probably like to lose a child. (I do not speak from personal experience, however.) The unrelenting hell that can never go away, to be relived in the minds eye again and again ...
Perhaps the idea might better gel in a horror film versus a melodrama. There are shades of something different buried in the convoluted busy work, the first half in particular, but the follow-through and execution lean towards quick commerce over lasting art. As with any large piece of hard-candy, I often found the lingering sweetness in A Day hard to swallow, but I get the temptation not to spit it out.