Korean film “The Chaser” comes on an incredible wave of critical acclaim, having won the Grand Prize award at the 44th Baeksang Art Awards, as well as the five top prizes at the 45th Daejong Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, not to mention having been very well received at Cannes. On top of this, it has also enjoyed great popular success, being the top earner at the domestic box office for 2008 to date. Incredibly, the film marks the first outing for director and screenwriter Na Hong Jin, who delivers an amazing assured crime thriller debut revolving around the grisly deeds of a real life serial killer who claimed more than twenty victims.
Said killer is Young Min (Ha Jung Woo, also in Kim Ki Duk’s “Breath” and “Time”), who preys upon prostitutes, and the film starts as he grabs a girl working for pimp and ex-cop Joong Ho (Kim Yoon Seok, particularly memorable in “Tazza: The High Rollers”). After he realises that he has just sent Mi Jin (Seo Young Hee, recently in “Shadows In The Palace”), another of his girls, to the same client, Joong Ho decides to follow. When the poor woman disappears, he fears she has been sold, and searches the area for her in vain. Furious, he runs into a fleeing Young Min, and noticing the blood stains on his clothes, gives chase. Although he catches his murderous quarry, who is duly arrested by the police, and who quite freely confesses his crimes, the case only gets more complicated due to a lack of evidence. Tormented by the possibility that Min Jin may still be alive and determined to bring Young Min to justice, Joong Ho begins his own investigation, scouring the streets for clues.
The greatest strength of “The Chaser” is the fact that, despite what might sound like a familiar premise, it never plays out as expected, with Na weaving a complex and expertly crafted web of twists and turns. The film is tense right from the first scene, immediately catching the viewer off guard, and it proceeds in a manner guaranteed to keep even the most experienced genre fan on tenderhooks for the entire two hour running time. Na consistently defies convention, revealing the identity of the killer early on and making it perfectly clear what he is capable of, and then further flouting form by bringing the two leads into direct confrontation shortly after. Following this, it is clear that the film is truly something special, and indeed it proves to be a masterclass in suspense and clever plotting, somehow managing to keep notching up the tension even further. Na never drops the ball, and the story grips right through to the end, throwing in plenty of genuine surprises and showing a great use of dramatic irony. The film is marvellously unpredictable, a rare quality indeed in these days of cookie cutter thrillers, and he toys mercilessly with the viewer, skilfully employing misdirection and subverting genre motifs.
The film is similarly unconventional in its characters, with Joong Ho making for an anti-hero figure rather than a protagonist in the traditional or expected sense. Na bravely flouts the usual need for generating viewer sympathy, initially making him a truly rotten man, who thinks nothing of dragging Mi Jin out of her sick bed to work, and who spends most of the film hunting Young Min for his own financial ends. Thankfully, Na resists the temptation to follow the anticipated melodramatic search for redemption character development arc, or to throw in a sudden last act change of heart, instead taking a far more believable and satisfying route, working in a gradually growing sense of self-realisation and guilt. Kim Yoon Seok is wonderful in the role, and succeeds in the difficult task of bringing a genuine humanity to the character, and incredibly manages to ensure that he grows on the viewer as the film progresses. Young Min also makes for a fascinating villain, quite different to the psychos who tend to turn up in this kind of film. Although the film does explore his evil mind, wisely, no trite explanation is offered for his murderous madness, and he remains frighteningly aloof throughout.
Na’s direction is excellent, and is amazingly mature consider that this is his debut feature. Showing a steady hand, he keeps the film stylish in an understated manner, eschewing the kind of fast editing and flashy tricks often favoured by first time helmers. The film has a subtle noir feel, with a moody, muted look, though at the same time being decidedly down to earth and gritty. Na is an expert at playing scenes for maximum tension, as is seen early on during a scene where he cuts back and forth between Young Min trying to drive a spike into an unfortunate victim’s head and Joong Ho hopelessly trying to find him. His handling of the action scenes is similarly impeccable, and he keeps the film moving at a taut pace by throwing in plenty of kinetic chase scenes, ensuring that its title is appropriate. The film never shies from the gory details, and has a number of gruesome scenes, and these sudden bursts of brutal violence help to further its sense of grim realism.
As should be obvious from the gushing praise above, “The Chaser” is a magnificent piece of genre film making, which stands not only as the best Korean thriller of recent years, but indeed the best from anywhere. As close to perfection as it gets for an exercise in high tension, the film also enjoys far more psychological depth than many more straightforward character dramas. Na has shown himself to be a real talent, well deserving of the accolades the film has brought him, and his second feature will certainly be awaited with great interest.
Hong-jin Na (director) / Won-Chan Hong, Shinho Lee, Hong-jin Na (screenplay)
CAST: Yun-seok Kim … Joong-ho Eom
Jung-woo Ha … Young-min Jee
Yeong-hie Seo … Mi-jin Kim
In-gi Jung … Detective Lee
Hyo-ju Park … Detective Oh