See Korean Film #2: The Chaser (THE EAST Campaign in Association with Koreanfilm.org & Korean Cultural Centre UK)

Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok, who played Agwee, one of the contemporary Korean cinema’s scariest villains, in Tazza: The High Rollers) is a former cop turned pimp for a “massage parlor.” He is convinced that a young, dorky customer Young-min (Ha Jung-woo, The Unforgiven, Never Forever) has kidnapped and sold his “girls,” including Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee, Shadows in the Palace). Unfortunately, what the cops discover is far worse: Young-min is a serial killer who uses a chisel and a hammer to slaughter his victims in lieu of sex. While the police investigation stumbles and takes a detour, Jung-ho increasingly suspects that Young-min’s latest victim, Mi-jin, is still alive somewhere.

The Chaser was the first runaway hit of 2008, selling close to 5 million tickets. Was that success deserved?

Can Yuna Kim skate?

Suffice to say that the above synopsis by itself cannot possibly convey why The Chaser is the grittiest, snazziest and gutsiest Korean thriller in years and one of the best Korean films of 2008.
The Chaser is written and directed by Na Hong-jin (who had previously made the award-winning short A Perfect Snapper Dish), and it is truly difficult to believe that this is his feature film debut. The film exudes the aura of a piece de resistance concocted by a supremely confident genre veteran. Na’s direction is peerless in orchestrating suspense by slowly and methodically disclosing to the viewers clues about what is really going on. Adding to the film’s power is its intricate, sharply intelligent screenplay that always remains a half-step ahead of the viewer expectations, which generates completely unexpected moments of dark humor as well as teeth-rattling frisson. Technical credits excel as well: DP Lee Sung-je (No Comment), lighting director Lee Chol-o and production designer Lee Min-bok (Epitaph) contribute greatly to the hauntingly naturalistic re-creation of the Seoul landscape. A moody, acoustic-minimalist score by Kim Joon-seok and Choi Yong-rak is uncommonly effective.

I was also pleasantly surprised by how realistically and sympathetically The Chaser’s struggling police force was depicted: it’s definitely the best police procedural since Memories of Murder. I disagree with the criticism that it sides with Dirty Harry-like vigilantism over the legal protections accorded even to criminal suspects. The police in The Chaser, convincingly foul-mouthed and perpetually exhausted but struggling mightily to find an acceptable compromise between upholding civil rights and using old beat-’em-up-until-they-confess methods, are just a bunch of working stiffs, neither “the evil establishment” nor heroic public servants. Frankly, I would recommend The Chaser to any foreign viewer who has developed the view that the Korean police are baseball-bat wielding thugs, based on complete fantasies like Lee Myung-se’s Nowhere to Hide. This is one of the few Korean films where situations like a white-haired, flinty-eyed psychiatrist baiting a murder suspect with taunts of sexual impotence and a female cop (Park Hyo-joo) fending off the latter’s sneering advances can be appreciated without any suspension of disbelief.

But if anyone owns The Chaser, it is perhaps not director Na, despite his incredibly impressive command over the material, but Kim Yun-seok. Jung-ho, as played by Kim, has a bloated, sad-sack mien with an undercurrent of hostility and desperation. Kim never once mugs for the viewer’s sympathy, and yet, as the film unfolds, he (with the terrific direction by Na) constantly demolishes our (genre-bound) expectations about how Jung-ho would behave in a given situation. His choices are amazing as much in their fidelity to the conception of his character (he begins as a truly irredeemable scumbag, and doesn’t exactly become a white-winged angel by the end) as in their restraint and precision. I would venture to say that Kim’s performance in The Chaser begins where Choi Min-shik’s ends in Failan. Yes, it’s that great.

The film’s weak link, in my opinion, is Young-min, the serial killer character. It’s really not Ha Jung-woo’s fault at all, as he delivers a terrific performance as a genuine sociopath. It’s that a serial killer, in the Korean context at that, can no longer generate enough fascination and interest. Some pretty out-there new wrinkles, as displayed in, say, Mr. Brooks, or another Korean thriller, Our Town, are needed to jolt such a character out of the annoying sex-murderer-with-the-face-of-a-saint cliches. Young-min’s presence also ensures that the movie occasionally veers off into the territory of extreme gore (climaxing with a scene in which a character is bludgeoned to death in slow motion — one both disturbingly beautiful and mind-bogglingly horrid), possibly losing a section of the audience who might have otherwise appreciated it.

Not for the faint of the heart, The Chaser goes a long way in restoring confidence not only in Korean cinema’s capacity to churn out terrific crime thrillers, but also in the untapped reservoirs of filmmaking talent in Korea, still left to be discovered.

Written by Kyu Hyun Kim (Koreanfilm.org)

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