The Chaser (2008)
Director: Hong-jin Na
Starring: Yun-seok Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Yeong-hie Seo, Yoo-Jeong Kim
The Chaser is an acclaimed South Korean serial killer thriller which throws a few curve balls compared to your typical crime drama. The serial killer narrative is mostly played out, especially in North America where there are many murder victim of the week TV shows. That’s not to say there isn’t some room for new ideas and approaches.
I heard of The Chaser because I recently watched director Na Hong-jin’s third feature film The Wailing. It’s a different kind of horror film that captures your imagination long after watching it. So I was very curious to see the director’s debut film The Chaser and what innovations he may bring to the serial killer genre.
The story’s set up is suspenseful. Joong-ho Eom is a former dirty cop turned pimp. He’s mean spirited and prone to violence. A few of his missing call girls were paid thousands of dollars in advance and are believed to have run away or been sold. After Joong-ho links a particular client’s phone number to the missing girls, he orders prostitute Mi-jin Kim to meet with this client and message him back with the location. But she’s isn’t able to get a phone signal and is trapped alone in a house with a possible killer.
I like how Joong-ho is painted as a low down deplorable man, yet as the movie progresses you see different shades of him. It’s a bit funny how he verbally berates his lackey nicknamed Meathead. Even though the police are working on the case, Joong-ho is the only one who is truly concerned to do everything in his power, legally or otherwise, to find prostitute Mi-jin. Some tender moments involve Joong-ho’s father-like protectiveness over Mi-jin’s daughter, a young girl who’s very perceptive to what’s going on even though it’s not being told directly to her. Oddly, Joong-ho might just be the most moral person in the story.
A couple of key foot chases captures the tension very well because of the strong direction and editing. Director Na Hong-jin doesn’t show the act of violence directly but it actually makes it even more brutal leaving the audience to imagine it in their heads. I feel conflicted seeing the art of blood splatter beautifully depicted on screen and knowing that an innocent life is savagely murdered. I also was impressed by a spinning camera shot around Joong-ho representing his disorientation without drawing too much attention to the camera which in lesser hands could pull the audience out of the viewing experience.
One of the story elements that goes against convention is that The Chaser is not a who done it and it’s not about tracking down the killer. I personally found the suspense to let down after the first half and doesn’t reach the same heights again. The serial killer performance by Young-min Jee is solid. He can go from innocent looking to mischievous to crazy effortlessly. Creepy … yes, I’m just not sure how believably the killer behaves at times and the screenplay could have fleshed him out more.
The second half of the film is where The Chaser falls apart. From what I understand, The Chaser is a commentary on police corruption and the incompetence of law enforcement. In this regards, it is likely that there are culturally relevant and historical details that are lost on non South Korean viewers. For example, whether the screenplay is loosely inspired on any real life events. However, it’s incredulous to the point of frustration how the police ineptly process criminals and investigate murders. Then again, that is highly likely the director’s intent. But even then there is a turning point in the last act that is poorly constructed and relies too much on coincidence or a folly of errors to be considered a strong, convincing ending.
The first half of the Chaser I’d give four stars and the second half I’d give two stars. I appreciate that The Chaser tries to do something different and in many ways it does succeed. It’s the screenplay that has holes while the direction, acting and editing is very well accomplished. The Chaser may be more violent than Oldboy, another dark South Korean thriller, but isn’t as psychologically disturbing to me, not that serial killer movies ever make for a relaxing, tranquil view.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ (three out of five stars)