As far as genre riffs go, you can do worse than riffs on Groundhog Day. Time-loop stories are a unique means of putting characters through the wringer, and typically also exercises in precise writing and editing. Within the last month or so alone, we’ve seen a Star Trek episode use the time-loop formula (as many have before), and we’ve seen Happy Death Day successfully marry it to the slasher genre. Now it’s South Korean cinema’s turn, with Cho Sun-ho’s directorial debut A Day.
This particular time-loop falls into the “prevent a catastrophic event” subcategory. Celebrated humanitarian doctor Kim Joon-young (Kim Myung-min) returns home to South Korea from a mission overseas, aiming to catch up with his semi-estranged daughter. But en route to their meeting, Kim bears witness to a horrific car accident - one that claims the life of his daughter. Cue a reset to the start of the day, and the central hook (but not the only one) of the film.
Despite its uninspiring and un-Googlable title, A Day does a number of interesting things with the genre, in keeping with South Korean traditions of twisty narratives and stark tonal shifts. You’ve just got to stick through a tough first act to get there. The first half hour is almost entirely action: Kim goes through numerous loops of the titular day, attempting to prevent his daughter’s death, but we barely learn anything about him, his daughter, or the accident itself. When his numerous failed attempts start to become comical, the movie seems sunk.
But then a couple twists drop - twists that make the audience sit the fuck up and pay attention. Additional characters join the story, informing events that previously seemed like pure happenstance, and upending the time-loop concept entirely. Stylistic flourishes pepper the filmmaking, turning Kim’s daughter’s death into a bizarre, repeated ritual upon which there can be infinite variations. And all the while, Kim gets more and more desperate to solve his mystery. Suddenly, this movie’s gripping as hell.
The more we learn about Kim, the characters around him, and his shameful past that sets the plot into motion, the worse we feel about the situation, in classic South Korean tradition. Any other movie would set up Kim’s backstory in the opening act, but A Day holds its cards to its chest for a surprisingly long time. Once the backstory is revealed - in a plot twist fit for the most melodramatic soap opera - the film transitions from a propulsive mystery-thriller to an emotionally bleak family revenge drama. And with that, we start caring - an hour into the film.
At a brisk 90 minutes, A Day is blissfully short for a South Korean film. That certainly helps when the movie starts off at a sprint and slows down as it plays out. It’s that rare movie that had me starting out on completely the wrong foot - at one point the lack of character depth had me so uninvested I started laughing at the less-than-ideal subtitle localisation - but completely turned me around by the end.
A Day won’t satisfy everyone, and nit-pickers will surely tear into its internal logic. More open-minded audiences, however, will surely appreciate its inventive, emotional, structurally experimental take on the time-loop movie. If only it had a more memorable title.