That Moment In is an awesome website run by David and Adam with fab reviews and insight on films. Since finding it recently, I’ve not been able to stay away. I really do recommend you head on down. But before you check them out, I recommend you read David’s entry into my Foreign Favourites series.
Quick summary: A cash-strapped pimp and former police detective draws upon the skills of his old job to track down his missing stable of prostitutes (IMDB).
In Seoul, Korea, Joong-Ho is a somewhat disreputable ex-cop turned pimp, having trouble with his debts because two of his girls have run of, or so he thinks. One of his last girls, Mi-Jin is sent to a customer who Joong-Ho realizes is the same man who called the two missing girls. He suspects the man is reselling his girls, so he calls upon some police friends to help investigate, but they are embroiled in a scandal involving the Mayor where the police are accused of not adequately protecting the city official from a deranged protestor. Meanwhile, Mi-Jin, uncomfortable from the start, ends up in a dank and filthy bathroom, tied up and gagged.
The”customer”, know as 4885 because of his phone number, enters the room and sets down a heavy bag of tools. Stripped down to his shorts, he takes out a hammer and a chisel and asks the girl, who is face down on the tiled floor, if she has any reason to be alive. Screaming, she says there is one. He ignores her and says no one will miss her, then strikes at her but a knock on the front door spares her though not the unfortunate elderly couple inquiring about the owner of the home, who the man is certainly not. The man, exposed as killer, slaughters the two passersby and then attempts to move their car so as to arouse further suspicion. In doing so, he bumps into Joong-Ho, whom asks the man for insurance details, but quickly realizes this is the “4885” he is looking for. Unwilling to cooperate, the killer flees and as the title reveals, the chase begins, not only for the killer but for the life of a bound and wounded woman hidden in a house only a maniacal butcher knows.
Directed by Na Hong-Jin, The Chaser is an award winning film that might seem by its summary to be just another run-of-the mill action/thriller with clearly defined good guys and bad guys but is anything but. Joong-Ho (Kim Yoon-Seok) is flawed, as many heroes tend to be, but it doesn’t necessarily make him a better person by the end, only more scarred by the brutality of his world. Yeong-Min (Ha Jung-Woo) is a serial killer by any definition, and is ambivalent to the moral compass most of us follow and simply does what he does. Mi-Jin (Seo Young-Hee) is a mother, trying to raise a young daughter, her circumstances what they are because sometimes that is what life becomes.
A long while back, in the 1970s, there was a wave of gritty action films that had a harrowing sense of reality. Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Three Days of the Condor are just a few of the movies that were elevated by authenticity. The streets seemed real, the situations plausible, and the people in the stories grounded, vulnerable, desperate. In the eighties, the role of “Action Hero” dramatically changed, with the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis and of course Arnold Schwarzenegger. From there, the star of an action movie has become a kind of god, and the world he saves, a well-polished arena. Split-second, dizzying editing and stunts that defy not just physics but also logic are now so common as to be believed. The hero can bleed but there is no fear he won’t survive. Movies are indeed an escape from reality.
The Chaser does away with all of that, harkening back to that earlier time. The men in conflict are mere mortals and Na Hong-Jin is patient with his direction. When the killer attempts to flee the angry pimp, a foot chase begins in the darkened alleyways and side streets, up inclines and around parked cars. The men are just men and therefore cannot run like Tome Cruise in a Mission Impossible film (or any Tom Cruise film for that matter). In a very short time, they are both breathless, chugging along with only their fear and rage pushing them. There is a wonderful clumsiness to the sequence, lacking the fluidity and perfection of same genre movies. This is the motif of the entire film, where every character is defined by their actions not by their role, and each situation feels grown from the previous. The end of the foot chase is not a long, drawn-out hyper-choreographed fist fight where men endure what should be bone crushing strikes. Instead, it is savage and one sided, yet powerfully pure and uncompromisingly raw. What follows is equally surprising.
The film is not light. Nor is it so dark as to be oppressive. Scenes of human suffering in film are of two distinct values. They are either in service of gore, intended to make us squirm and can be gripping as with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original) or simply appalling as with The Human Centipede films. Or they can move us with sorrow for the real horrors that exist, have a meaningful impact in the medium. The Chaser is a dark, often disturbing and sometimes hard to watch experience, but that is why it should be seen. There is violence not for the sake of violence but because is it essential. When Yeong-Min strikes, it is not romanticized with musical cues or bits of banter. It is sudden and jarring. He is not a “madman” in the traditional sense from what we expect of madmen in film. He has no greater agenda, no elaborate plan. He is however, dead-eyed and pragmatic, manipulative and quick to adapt. When you watch him, you are terrified not because he is a monster, but because he is human, something altogether scarier. This is far removed from the “safe” films of most American cinema, where very few movies stray from the formula, making sure no matter what happens, there is a happy if not satisfying ending. If you’re looking for predictable, you won’t find it here, and whenever you think this film is settling into the pattern, it throws you off the track. Nothing will prepare you for the final act.
Deeply emotional, sentimental, and also terrifying in its realism, The Chaser is one of the best Korean films ever made, on par if not better than the fan favorite Oldboy. It dares to take a genre and challenge the viewer to break from expectation. While its dark themes and sometimes tragic elements can weigh heavy, the experience is one a foreign film fan should seek out. Haunting and strangely touching, this is one that stays with you long after it’s over.
A superb review David. What a fantastic premise and sounds there is real depth in the characters. Not to mention the fantastic realism and countless surprises on offer. I’m definitely curious.