When the general premise for your film is that you have a pimp on the hunt for a psychotic serial killer because he keeps murdering his prostitutes, the first instinct for any audience member is to say “we have entered into the realm of the fantastical.” An interesting premise, no doubt, but maybe a little too implausible for us to take serious. This is the sort of premise reserved for low budget b-movies starring Armand Assante. Imagine Assante, covered in oil, slapping around some random woman on the hunt for a serial killer. It makes sense, right? Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction, though because The Chaser is actually based on a true story. The insane world that we live in actually developed this story before a script writer, and our cinematic re-telling liberally added to the story, as one could expect. The real story of cannibal killer Yoo Young-cheol is nearly as strange as the narrative of this film, and his story is far more deplorable than anything that you will see in The Chaser. The true story that inspired The Chaser was a far more simplistic story and relied less on any singular hero, but an entire community within the sex industry noticing several girls going missing. This established a group of pimps to come together and take note of the person responsible for these missing people and helping the police force track down Yoo Young-cheol. The real life story following this incident isn’t nearly as genre-bending or as wrought with tension of course, but considering the fact that this was never meant to be a bio-picture, the changes that director Na Hong-jin and his writers made are more than justified.
The film follows Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), a former dirty cop who has retired from law enforcement and instead works as a pimp. Recently he has noticed some of his girls have been coming up missing, and at first he simply blames it on the girls running off, but when he sends one of his most valued girls off to meet Jee Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) he starts to look through his back-records. He discovers that every girl that he has sent off to meet Young-min has never returned, and thus he decides to track down his girl and ensure that she is still okay. Young-min however intends to do what he does best with the young woman, smash her skull with a hammer and chisel. After injuring the young woman, but not killing her, he becomes distracted when a local couple comes knocking at his door. Young-min then kills these two locals and decides to drive their car around the block in order to hide the evidence, but along the way he runs into Joong-ho who quickly pieces together his identity. After a brief altercation, both men are arrested and Joong-ho watches on as Young-min confesses to several murders in the local vicinity. Joong-ho wrongfully believes the young man to be lying and is persistent in thinking that he has instead sold his girls to another pimp, and through the course of the night he intends to find out just what happened to his girls but to do that he must first find the apartment that Young-min has been holding up in.
The Chaser is a title that has been on my personal to-watch list for what has to be years now. How can one not find the project interesting after reading only two or three sentences dealing with the synopsis? The concept screams of the ridiculous, but if you’ve seen even a handful of Korean films you know to expect a very different twist on genre conventions. It seems to be something in the water, because it is a common thread in nearly every South Korean film that I have ever seen. Even in the most deluded and lamest of South Korean films, there is usually some degree of genre experimentation at work. The Chaser, similar to the more recent I Saw the Devil (2010), shatters genre conventions early on as it shows us that there will be no mystery about the actual identity of our killer. We discover that Young-min is indeed the murderer, and although his motivations (and his sanity) remain a bit ambiguous, there is no mystery surrounding his identity as one might expect from the post-Se7en climate of serial killer cinema. This is unexpected within Western films, but not a totally different concept in ones from South Korea.
Similar to Memories of Murder (2003, Bong Joon-ho), yet another South Korean serial killer film, The Chaser waves a very disapproving finger at the local police force. Korean police officers are once again shown to be greedy, corrupt, and narcissistic bullies. Bullies that use their position as a means to make profit for themselves and oppress whoever makes for the easiest target. As we see in the character of Joong-ho, his work with the police was never on the up-and-up, but he is no different than any of the other police officers still on the job. This distrust of the law ultimately, as was the case with Memories of Murder, leads to some of the more obviously comical moments during the film and gives it the texture of a very dry black-comedy. When you’re watching the film from beginning to end, these humorous moments don’t seem the most logical, as their overwrought nature can be a bit deterring at first. The further we sink into this bizarre world, however, the more the insane comedy seems to prove fitting for such a strange cinematic endeavor. I mean honestly, how do you tackle a movie about a pimp hunting down a serial killer without some faint hints at comedy?
What makes The Chaser is its excellent use of tension. Director Na Hong-jin is a total enigma to me He has only one other film, the recently released The Yellow Sea (2010) which has received mixed reviews, but I will say that he seems to be a director who knows perfectly well how to manipulate his audience. Even for a jaded viewer such as myself, he still managed to make me squirm from the inevitable anticipation of a violent blow and he made me tap my feet in nervous reaction from having to watch characters linger in dangerous situations. The first half of the film in particular proves to be brutal on the nerves. There is one particular sequence that stands out to me as one of the most tension-filled within the entire movie. It starts with the young prostitute, who will eventually become Young-min’s captive, being given an explicit order to call Joong-ho once she is inside his apartment and we follow her as she fails in her task due to the lack of signal within Yoong-min’s prison-like bathroom. While this doesn’t sound like anything special on paper, as the movie plays out there is an intensity placed on the scene. Despite Young-min not appearing to be a killer, we can feel the deep fear of this poor young woman and we immediately gain a distrust for the character despite not even being sure if this man truly is the killer.
Gritty, dark, humorous and morbid, The Chaser is a project filled with unexpected twists and turns. There are going to be some audience members who are unable to grasp the dark humor of certain scenes based primarily upon the violence that surrounds them, but for the adventurous filmgoer, The Chaser proves to be an engaging and thought provoking entry in the serial killer subgenre of horror/thrillers. It is a film that delivers in ways you would never expect from this sort of production, and I couldn’t be more happy about that fact. It can be found on Netflix Watch Instant as of the moment and for those who have the service, I highly recommend you chase this one down. That’s right, I end this review with a pun.
The Chaser will be shown at the Walter Reade Theater on Thursday, July 14th at 3:15 PM. For tickets, visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s NYAFF website here.