Release Date: February 14th, 2008
Running Time: 123 mins.
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Na Hong-Jin, Hong Won-Chan, Lee Shinho, (Screenplay)
Starring: Kim Yun-Seok, Ha Jung-Woo, Seo Young-Hee, Park Hyo-Joo, Jung In-Gi, Kim You-Jung, Ko Bon-Woong, Min Kyung-Jin,
South Korea has produced a number of high quality serial-killer films like I Saw the Devil (2010) and Memories of Murder (2003) but The Chaser is one of the darkest and most thrilling. It is based on a real life case where a murderer named Young-chul Yoo struck fear in Seoul by murdering rich old men and then prostitutes before being brought to justice in 2005. He was convicted of the killing of 20 people and was caught thanks mostly to pimps and prostitutes rather than the police. Apparently he was inspired by films like Public Enemy. That case is replicated here in a story where the characters and the world are so brilliantly crafted that you are plunged into the middle of this drama which turns into a relentless tale of brutality.
The story is split between three people.
We start with Ji Young-min (Ha Jung-Woo), the killer.
He seems harmless, a bland-looking slender fellow who is characterless even. In reality he is a disturbed man, a vicious killer. We see how he snares his prey: he calls a prostitute to a meeting on a busy street and they drive to a house tucked away in a wealthy neighbourhood and she vanishes. We know this through simple editing. The prostitute’s car is left parked up for days, a match cut shows the change in time and weather, close ups of the car reveal leaflets stuck between windscreen wipers. Where has she disappeared to? Somewhere behind the walls and gate of the luxurious house he resides in and she will probably end up buried in the front garden.
She isn’t the first prostitute to go missing and one pimp in particular wants to find them.
We are introduced to our next character, Jung-ho (Kim Yun-Seok). He is an ex-cop.
Like a typical Korean movie-detective he bends the rules and is pretty violent but this behaviour meant he was bounced from the force. Having sold out his badge to pimp girls he hounds them to work the streets so they can make money for him. Occasionally a look of guilt flits across his broad face and sad eyes when he has to force sick girls to work and rescue one of them from a violent client. He is our hero, a scumbag with a bit of a conscience. His call-girl business has lost quite a few girls and he is convinced that a repeat customer is kidnapping and selling them on. This is where his former career as a detective comes in handy. He tracks down the names of the missing girls and links them to the same phone number and he realises that one of his few remaining workers, our third main character Kim Mi-Jin (Seo Young-Hee), is with the kidnapper. This is his opportunity to catch the man so Jung-ho gets Mi-Jin to send back details of the address they go to with her mobile phone. All she has to do is stick with him. What Jung-ho doesn’t realise is that the kidnapper is the very same murderer we saw in the beginning and this puts Mi-Jin in great peril.
What ensues is a series of gut-wrenching plot-twists and a race against time to save Mi-Jin. There are a lot of coincidences in this journey as the ex-detective and his prey cross paths with neither fully realising what threat other represents. For Jung-Ho, this is a rival pimp and for Young-Min, well, he doesn’t really care that an ex-cop is chasing him he just wants to kill. Meanwhile we see Kim Mi-Jin manage to survive brutal attacks carried out by Young-Min with hammer and chisel (very Freudian) and these attacks are shown on-screen without the camera flinching away (making it painful to witness) and, thankfully, without the sadism of other films (making the blows quick thus ensuring they aren’t gratuitous and off-putting). These coincidences pique an audience’s excitement as we hope someone, anyone rescues Mi-Jin but there’s an underlying investigation which Jung-Ho carries out and tries to alert the police to and this provides the film with an underlying logical spine as we wait for him or the authorities to nail the criminal.
Jung-Ho hasn’t forgotten his detective training and his base instincts are on point when it comes to investigating, if a little rough around the edges. He uses car registrations to track down houses, quizzes witnesses, conducts searches and he bands together with pimps and prostitutes to build up a picture of a killer the police remain unaware of.
The bigger picture is what everyone is missing because each character and player has a limited view but the audience knows more which makes this story compelling as we see Jung-Ho slowly begin to realise how serious the situation is as he pieces together Mi-Jin’s disappearance and links it to others. We see the police who are slow to respond to the unfolding case since it occurs on a night when the mayor of Seoul is showered with faeces by someone protesting poor living standards and they have a serious lack of evidence. Anything will do to cover up that embarrassment including bringing to justice a serial killer but they have to do things by the book which means that they release killer due to lack of evidence, something that happened in the real life case. This feeds perfectly into the script as our expectations of the film are constantly raised and dashed by the police procedural part and seeing the various powers play politics with the case. The audience’s expectations are continually thwarted. This alone would be fascinating but what raises the film up even higher is when Jung-Ho gets on the tail of Young-min, literally.
True to its title, lots of chasing takes place through the winding hillside streets of Mangwon district, Seoul. Mostly at night and with moody lighting from street lamps and car headlights, the camera keeps pace with medium shots during long-sequences as the two actors breathlessly run after each other. It is thrilling to watch because these moments feature visceral physical action, partly fuelled by wanting to see Young-Min arrested. We have witnessed how evil he can be. Look into his eyes and see a void where empathy should be. Look into Jung-Ho’s eyes and you see empathy is something he gradually picks up in the film as he realises that Mi-Jin is in trouble and he placed her there. Not only that, he has to look after Mi-Jin’s daughter, an overused trope in Korean films but effective since she humanises the characters and adds weight to the story. Again the violence is potent stuff and you get the sense that the actors put everything into each punch and kick, every blow and dodge. It is painful to watch as characters take a golf-club swing to the head, bricks are tossed around and bounce off limbs and the wrestling occurs. You believe each blow and it means all the more because you are invested in the story and the people driving it.
Seo Young-Hee played a female victim very well in Bedevilled (2010) but in that film her character is pushed into revenge. Here she is merely a damsel in distress, her plot serving to add a sense of frisson to the story. This is really a story driven by men and the two are impressive. Ha Jung-Woo is excellently bland and disturbed as Young-Min and his callous disregard for the lives he takes is believable and a world away from the suave actor we see in The Berlin File (2013) and Behind the Camera (2012). Meanwhile Kim Yun-Seok provides the perfect foil as a rotten guy developing a conscience and softening over the course of the film. By the end you are rooting for him, a good turnaround for a character that may be difficult to like and this is one of the gifts of a film with such a complex script so well executed, the characters grab us and never let us go as we chase the finale and hope for the best.
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