A film like Hong-Jin’s The Chaser is the exception to the rule for shock-based serial killer films. Speaking as someone who actively avoids most women-in-peril horror pics, I was relieved to find that this Korean offering manages to unhinge and electrify its audience without resorting to loathsome or deviant imagery.
Recently William Monahan and Leonardo DiCaprio have showed interest in an American remake of it. I can see why.
The Chaser creates a believable and incredibly real environment out of the night-time streets of Seoul, and draws the focus not on gruesome torture or misogyny but on a critique of the justice system in Korea, which allows a murdering sociopath to go free even after he’s been apprehended by authorities.
At the same time, the film is a captivating and poignant study of a man who has crossed over so many moral and personal boundaries that it requires him coming face-to-face with real and calculating evil to even begin to see his way back home. Best of all, The Chaser works simply as a taut, unrelenting thriller; even when the film’s pace doesn’t match the breakneck speed of the events on screen, it holds us in its dark, chilling spell.
Taking place on the streets of the Mapo district in Seoul, The Chaser follows disgraced cop turned pimp, Joong-Ho, who is lamenting the financial hit his ‘business’ has taken of late; several of the prostitutes working for him have simply never returned. When e sends the sick Mi-Jin(because he has no one else available) out to a john, he realizes too late that the man’s cell number matches the last job each of the missing girls took. Joong-Hi tries to get in touch with Mi-Jin, and when this fails, he sets out after her; at this point, he isn’t so much concerned for her safety as he is fighting to protect his business.
As it turns out, a lot of things aren’t as they seem. Mi-Jin has a daughter that Joong-Ho finds when he goes to her apartment—he never knew she had a child— and when he single-handedly apprehends Young-Min, the john who has been taking his girls, he realizes that the man hasn’t been selling his girls, but murdering them. This means Joong-Ho has placed Mi Jin in harm’s way.
Without giving too much away, the film shifts its focus at just about every half-hour mark. The first 30 minutes play out as an almost contained thriller with the pimp trying to selfishly defend his employees while taking down the chilling and nonchalant Young-Min, who looks like he would happily murder 70 more if given the chance. With Young-Min in custody and confessing to the murder of the girls, it looks like an open and shut case. Until of course, bureaucracy gets in the way, and a crap-slinging (literally) protester who targets politicians becomes a higher responsibility than the vile killer.
Although the intensity of Mi-Jin’s predicament invests The Chaser with a horror-movie atmosphere, it is ultimately the slow awakening of Joong-Ho’s humanity that gives the film its emotional impact. This isn’t an easy role or a simple character, and I didnt’ find much to like in the man at first. To be honest, there isnt’ much to like by the end either, but he is in the process of growing and as played by Yun-seok Kim he has a complexity to him I did not expect. Joong-Ho is a slovenly, angry mess at the opening of The Chaser, bullying the women who work for him and casting a sour eye at the rest of the world. He’s hiding out in a ratty, dingy office with yellowed wallpaper and sputtering flourescent lights. His mind, however, is still sharp and his skills as a detective haven’t dulled.
As soon as the ex-cop sets out to find Mi-Jin, he’s on the road to reconnecting with all he lost. He just doesn’t know it, and of all the things the film over-emphasizes, his gradual redemption isn’t one of them. It happens with little fanfare or posturing but it is meaningful precisely because it isn’t easy for him. There is a bitter truth at the heart of the film; despite his best efforts now, Joong-Ho won’t have come to the end of his journey by simply catching Young-Min or saving Mi-Jin. Over the course of this one angry night, he will be goaded to life by the young girl he’s watching over, haunted by the one he delivered into harm, and provoked by the man who has hidden her away in the bowels of Mapo. There are feelings being stirred that cannot be re-buried, and some time very soon, perhaps even before all this is over, Joong-Ho will have to pay the proverbial Piper. Maybe, there will even be enough of him left afterwards to make good out of it.
In contrast to the character of Joong-Ho, there is Yeong-hie Seo’s chilling performance as Young-Min. The Chaser is such a great film specifically because of his performance. Without him, it wouldn’t be nearly as disturbing or affecting as it ends up being. The filmmakers have based Young-Min and his crimes off of the real-life case of Yoo Young Cheol who murdered 21 people in 2003-04. Killing mostly women and the elderly, Cheol was documented as callous, diabolical and an amoral mastermind.
Yeong-hie Seo takes those characteristics and delves into each one so fully that I do not envy his journey or the places he had to go to achieve such results. Other actors approaching the task of playing a madman employ hand gestures, facial ticks, or other forms of body language to suggest instability or abberration. Whats so completely disarming about Young-Min is that there isn’t any of that. All of the ‘badness’ can be found in the eyes that stare just a bit too long, or the smilingat all the wrong moments, or the telling way in which he won’t touch anyone unless it’s in the process of physical violence. These are small, near-throwaway details, but there are so many layered on here they form a portrait of disquieting grotesqueness.
Finally, special mention must be made of the director’s work. Hong-jin Na provides an active and living backdrop for the drama and lifts it beyond merely an efficient thriller. He crafts each action piece with the skill of William Friedkin or Alfred Hitchcock and he never lets up. We think we know how the film will run. We assume we see where it is going. Most of the time, I think as viewers we follow the typical rhythms and tropes of filmmaking—especially genre films—and we can anticipate the next move. Thats part of why genres are popular; they are familiar. At some point, The Chaser jumps the ramp of genre and becomes direct, powerful and honest.This is a great film.