‘He has twelve hours to find the next victim’
Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008)

Na Hong-jin’s South Korean serial killer movie The Chaser opens in Seoul’s Mangwon district. A call-girl picks up her client, “4885”, for the evening and drives on to his home, intending to service him quickly; several days later, her abandoned car gathers parking notices and junk promo cards out in the street, and it’s clear the girl has vanished. The Chaser soon picks up with her boss, Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok), former Seoul city detective, now defamed and turned pimp. Having called on single mother Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), his only available girl for the night, to meet with another client, Jung-ho becomes suspicious and discovers that Mi-jin is actually en route to meet 4885. Thus ensues a cat-and-mouse search for Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), the man whom Jung-ho suspects, incorrectly, is reselling his girls onto other pimping rings. Na’s film alternates between Jung-ho’s unconventional efforts to recover his assets, who all seem to have gone missing on the streets of Mangwon, and the rather more sobering work of the investigative team operating out of the local police department, who are roped into Jung-ho’s case once it becomes apparent that Mi-jin is almost certainly the victim of a serial killer.

From this brief synopsis The Chaser sounds like much of a muchness and, indeed, the narrative is overloaded with genre confection. Thus we have: a desperate-mom-in-jeopardy plot (check), psychoanalytic interpretations of the killer’s motives (check), a surrogate kiddie who redeems the defeated hero (check), we have all manner of generalised problems germane to the police and legal communities (check), there are three (count them) chase sequences, and two grisly set-pieces guaranteed to revile some viewers. The film’s comic mid-section, which involves Jung-ho fighting Yeong-min in public before both are apprehended by a local cop, is undoubtedly the most effective. Korean filmmakers are nothing if not adept at using the authorities as inspiration for punchy critiques of postrevolutionary institutional incompetence: recall Oh Dae-su’s (Choi Min-sik) amusing remonstrations with the night-watch cops at the beginning of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003), a film which gives the authorities very short-shrift but which also powerfully envisions the pitfalls of vigilantism. The Chaser similarly derives its humour from the public and private humiliations of the local police force and the mayor’s office as well. It would be remiss of me not to add that director Na balances the laughs accordingly by illuminating Jung-ho’s own shortcomings, but as is the way with contemporary thrillers lighthearted derision soon gives way to earnest sentimentality.

Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok) and serial killer Ji Yeong-min (Ha Jung-woo) in Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008)

Watching The Chaser with an audience at the 2008 FilmFour Frightfest, many of whom treated the film as if it were an action shoot-’em-up or slasher, was an eye-opener in this regard. For instance in the final climactic confrontation, during which the grievously wounded hero takes a serious beating and crashes through a fishtank containing the severed head of the girl whose plight we were meant to have cared about all along, Jung-ho gets the better of Yeong-min and delivers a hammer blow to the face. This earned a round of applause in the theatre, ostensibly because we all needed some relief from the intense action, but it’s likely also that the visual effect itself was comical enough to elicit a response. As in Chang Yun-hyŏn’s 1999 serial killer hit Tell Me Something (whose own as-dumb-as-it-sounds exploding water-tank finale was more convincing as a dramatic showstopper), pleasure-in-violence takes precedence. It is a shame therefore that the rest of film plays to convention: poor Mi-jin lives as a single parent with her daughter in a crowded tower block on the evening that her boss calls on her to attend one last client (thus sealing her fate as Yeong-min’s next victim). With Mi-jin effectively sidelined for the rest of the movie, Jung-ho reluctantly agrees to babysit the stereotypical daughter-in-distress Eun-ji (Kim Yoo-jung), who seems to exist only to reinforce Jung-ho’s compassionate side (for which, in return, he reveals some wholly unnecessary home-truths) until her predictable hospitalisation midway through the second act. At the heart of this manipulation is the moral rehabilitation of Jung-ho who returns from the brink as the film’s savior. To his credit, however, director Na offers something rather more restrained: there is no suggestion, for instance, that this particular brand of blood-thirsty vigilantism is in any way productive; more often than not his actions hinder the investigation to find Mi-jin. But there were some in the Frightfest crowd, with whom I saw the movie, who embraced The Chaser as a high-energy popcorn flick and seemed to want Jung-ho to lay waste to practically everyone onscreen in his fight to track down and punish the villain.

Otherwise, The Chaser is an engaging thriller that successfully redraws the conventional balance of the police procedural by bringing the serial killer in early and devoting a mountain of screen time to the administrative, legalistic business of obtaining confessions and evidence — a fascinating process of discovery which, to director Na’s credit, never becomes bewildering or uninvolving. Interestingly, the Frightfest programme references both Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and the “uncomfortable atmosphere and cruel twists” of Se7en, and while these are adequate (but not wholly accurate) parallels to draw, there are perhaps stronger connections to be made with the likes of the aforementioned Tell Me Something and Jin Kwang-kyo’s crime drama Beautiful Sunday (2007), which is equally as entertaining.

24 August, 2008


olivier said...

I just saw the film, here in Switzerland. I quite agree with you but it' sstill an impressive movie.
Great review, by the way

Ian said...

Thanks Olivier :-) Very cool of you to drop in.

Agreed, it's a very accomplished movie. Sight and Sound magazine (our BFI rag) gave it an exceptionally good review last year, which took me by surprise, so I'm perhaps a little tough on it. Still... Thrilled to see (if I read you correctly) it's getting distribution in Switzerland - although that's probably our Hollywood pals at work, no?


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