The Underrated: The Chaser

It’s been an extremely long time since I’ve done one of these, and I’m actually thinking about renaming this section “the underexposed”. This time up, I’m once again delving back into Korean Cinema for a 2008 crime film that is both severely underexposed and truly excellent. I don’t really understand the West’s attitude to Japanese/ Korean cinema. Any blue filtered two-bit horror movie gets ridiculous levels of, to quote Droid, nut stroking, and yet the best films that I’ve seen from Korea recently are all crime films of some description. The tendency that still floats around amongst people to write off a whole culture as either boneheaded horror, stupid monster movies or chop-socky nonsense is astonishing, particularly when you consider how good films like The Vengeance Trilogy, Memories of Murder and now The Chaser actually are. The Chaser, incidentally, is being sold by Lovefilm as a horror movie. It most certainly is not. You can argue that it is a thriller, but it isn’t the serial killer gorefest that I was expecting.

The Chaser is loosely based on real events. In the mid-part of the last decade a horrific degenerate called Yoo Young-Chul slaughtered 21 people in 11 months. The police were staggeringly inept, the prosecution worse and it played out against a backdrop of social unrest and political incompetence. He was eventually arrested and is now the sole person languishing on South Korea’s Death Row. His crimes were so heinous that South Korea, which had previously being about to abolish the death penalty, changed it’s tack and public opinion hardened into a more right-wing position. Ordinarily, I’m very anti-death penalty, but looking at this dirtbag’s crimes (which include the murder of a baby with a claw hammer, child abuse, indiscriminate slaughter, cannibalism, torture and others) I’m wondering if the world wouldn’t be a better place if someone did pump him full of nitroglycerin then jammed a stick of dynamite up his ass.

Anyhoo, political digression aside, the film The Chaser principally follows the story through the eyes of Jung-Hoo (Yun-seok Kim) a bent ex-copper turned pimp. He’s lost a couple of girls and has twigged that the last person to see them was all with the same mobile number. As luck would have it, one of his best girls Mi-Jin (Yeong-hie Seo) is on her way to an appointment with this very phone number. She’s captured and through a coincidence he bumps into Jung-woo Ha’s Jee, the serial killer. The rest of the film is a three way race against time between the cops, Jung-Hoo and Jee (I would explain, but it is a huge spoiler) to find Mi-Jin alive.

First up, this film is absolutely brilliantly performed. Kim is brilliant as the Pimp with anger management problems, and his transformation over the course of the film, becoming increasingly more sympathetic as events unfold (particularly when the child begins to become more important) is astonishing. It’s a great turn. Secondly, Seo, although little more than a damsel in distress and an unconscious bloody mess on the floor is good and sympathetic. We fear for her, and want her to make it out alive, and the early section of the film where she looks in the bathroom and sees the big hook, gore in the drain and realises that she’s in deep trouble is tense, excruciating and brilliantly performed. However, the best performance from the three leads is from Ha as the serial killer. He mixes almost autistic level retardation with a menacing and scary single-mindedness that is never less than chilling. It’s the best turn as a serial killer that I’ve seen in ages. The supporting cast, particularly those playing the cops are all good, and in a few cases genuinely excellent. There’s a palpable sense of desperation to their actions.

However, as good as the acting is, this is a film that works best because it manages to jam a massive wedge of social commentary in. One of the early events shows that water has been shut off in Seoul (true), and a protester throws a shit-bomb at the mayor. This minor event has massive repercussions for the rest of the film. Secondly, the upper levels of the police and the prosecutor are all clearly concerned with the political ramifications rather than the actually dead 12 people (rises to 16 by the end of the film) and they make several terrible decisions due to this sensitivity. However, the real scorn of the film is reserved for the police force who are variously depicted as corrupt, stupid, incompetent and worst of all lazy. The key scene later in the film is prefaced with the cops actually asleep when they should be answering a distress call. It’s clear as daylight that Hong-Jin Na (director) and Won-Chan Hong and Shinho Lee (the writers) have nothing but contempt for the Korean police. My limited research (very limited) tells me that this is an opinion shared by many South Koreans, and if it is accurate then it’s disgraceful. Memories of Murder played a similar card, but not quite as effectively as it was set in the past. Nice to see nothing’s changed in 20 years.

The Chaser is a damned grim film. Early on I was convinced we were heading into Torture Porn territory, and thankfully it doesn’t. Almost all of the violence takes place off screen and the climactic murder as a result has a huge impact that it wouldn’t otherwise have had if we’d seen human flesh mangled for kicks. That’s not to say it’s relentlessly grim- there are several scenes with the minor characters that are played for laughs (particularly with the cops and the shit thrower). This injects a much-needed levity into what could otherwise be an awfully grim film.

Furthermore, it’s also a damned exciting film. Because the characters are properly established, there’s a real sense of urgency to the chase and it’s completely gripping. Hugely frustrating (it’s obvious that the Police don’t have a clue), but massively exciting nonetheless. There are also several foot-chases in this film that feel completely realistic as the runners visibly tire and slip, fall and otherwise. It’s obvious that the pursuer will eventually catch up, but while the chase is on it always feels like the target could escape.

Overall, this is a great film. If I’d seen it before I did the best of the decade lists it would be a serious contender for top 10 Asian of the last decade. It’s a fucking phenomenal effort and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s comfortably the best film I’ve seen in a while, and I wish that I’d pulled my finger out and watched it earlier.

Until next time,

Jarv.

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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

31 responses to “The Underrated: The Chaser”

  1. tombando says :

    This sounds like a great film. I will have to check it out. Usually my knowledge of Korean films begins with A*P*E* and runs the gamut to Pulgasari. Which is sad but whatever it’s true.

  2. LB says :

    Sounds Good jarv, thanks for the recommendation.

    My favorite sreial killer movie is HBO’s Citizen X (1995). It was a good police procedural that takes place in Russia. Best ending to a serial killer movie, ever.

  3. LB says :

    Sounds Good jarv, thanks for the recommendation.

    My favorite serial killer movie is HBO’s Citizen X (1995). It was a good police procedural that takes place in Russia. Best ending to a serial killer movie, ever.

  4. ThereWolf says :

    Superb write-up of a quite brilliant film.

    Hail to the mighty HOD for introducing me to this one. Can’t believe Lovefilm are bracketing this as horror – what a bunch of utter nincompoops.

    I too thought we were heading into torture porn, I was like ‘Eee, this is not gonna be for me…’ I mean it IS fuckin grim but I found myself getting drawn in, inexorably. Felt like I’d run a mental marathon by the finish – psychologically knackering.

    • Jarv says :

      That bit with the chisel? Mrs. Jarv was hiding.

      The only on screen killing is at the end.

      Jonah turned me on to this one. I’d been ignoring it as another oriental horror film

      • ThereWolf says :

        The chisel bit is gruelling.

        As I was watching the scene play out it made me think of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, when grandpa is hopelessly trying to bash the girl over the head with a hammer. It got to the point where I just wanted them to get it over with, kill her, finish it. I couldn’t take any more. Which is clever – coz I should be hoping she escapes, or rescue arrives in the nick of time. Instead, I’m kind of like ‘them’, I’m wanting her dead, I’m not even considering the possibility of her survival. That’s fucked up.

        SPOILER ALERT, DO NOT READ THIS BIT!!!

        In ‘The Chaser’ it’s similar, but obviously not the same. But I was still – ‘please, no more’. Very skillful, particularly the edit when the chisel smashes into the tiles, then film cuts to the copper outside. When it came back, I’m thinking the chisel has gone through her head and into the floor, so it was a shock to see that the killer had missed and she’s still alive and you’re thinking the copper’s gonna get there. Then the killer takes another swing and hits his own fingers… I’m like ‘Christ, is this ever gonna end!’

        That scene just wears you down.

  5. Continentalop says :

    I still have to see this and Memories of Murder. HOD, Jonah and ThereWolf have all given it hight praise.

    These movies prove we did the right thing in the Korean War, god damn it!

  6. just pillow talk says :

    This is a very solid film, as I just recently saw it too. Wolfie pumped it up pretty good, and I do have to say it’s pretty thrilling in spots and I felt myself quite anxious in hoping that cop/pimp would save the day.

    I prefer his performance over everyone’s because I thought he did an outstanding job transforming his character from one who didn’t give a shit to doing everything possible to “save the day”, or in this case, one of his girls.

    Splitting hairs though with ‘top performance’.

    And as WE all know (thanks to HOD in my case), the Koreans put out some great films.

  7. Echo the Bunnyman says :

    this is a great film, and I think its qualifiable as a horror film, just not according to the pathetic anemic designators of horror we use today.

    I give full props to HOD for this. He sent me the movie back in the summer of 2008–seems like a long time ago–and I remember sitting there watching it on the computer with the fear it was going to spiral off into torture at any moment.

    Like JPT says, the cop/pimp is a great character because the actor makes you feel his reawakening and his attempts at redemption. I like the movie doesnt make that an easy or simple thing for him.

    • Jarv says :

      Top film, but I don’t think it’s a horror film. It doesn’t have any of the beats of a horror film, the score of a horror film and isn’t aiming at the same emotional response as a horror film. Also, one of the primary rules of horror, regardless of sub-genre is that the main character is “in danger” and this is clearly not the case here.

      Have you seen 13: Game of Death?

      I’m writing up The Beast Must Die! For the Vault tonight, and next Underrated will be that one. 2/3 brilliant with another bollock-stomping ending.

      • just pillow talk says :

        I would call it more a thriller.

        The foot chase like Jarv mentioned, which was realistic as hell, the girl trying to escape, hoping that cop/pimp arrives in time to prevent her death, the final confrontation.

        I really liked the scene where he tried to outrun the entire police force, you know there’s no fucking way he could, but he sure as hell will do all he could to get out of there.

        I swear we should have a tab on top with all the flicks HOD sent us, it’s like an Asian Hall of Fame of Films.

      • Hawaiian Organ Donor says :

        Pillow, I really tried to send you guys the best of the best. Christ knows there’s a lot of bad Asian films out there but I figured there was no way films like Daisy, Chocolate, The Warlords, Red Cliff, A Bittersweet Life, Good Bad Weird, Invisible Target and Ip Man could lose.

        Although of all the movies I’ve sent out to dozens of people, nothing has ever received as much positive feedback as Daisy.

      • just pillow talk says :

        Yeah, even after my first run through all the films you sent me, Daisy was my favorite.

  8. Continentalop says :

    JPT is correct, this sounds technically like the classical definition of a thriller:

    A protagonist who is thrusted into a problem that he is ill-equipped to handle, outside of the law and with no help from the authorities (who might actually be working against them) and is the only one who can stop the antagonist.

    Thriller.

    • Jarv says :

      I also agree. If I was going to classify it, I’d call it a thriller.

    • Echo the Bunnyman says :

      potatoes. tomatoes. I could write it up three different ways and make it sound noir, thriller, horror. It’s certainly more cosmetically a thriller than anything else, but I’ve massaged it into the best horror of the decade last year. and it wasn’t a terribly hard fit. The thing is while the main character is sort of outside the major path of harm, the woman he’s trying to save is not, and the director makes some of those scenes aboslutely terrifying/horrifying. When she finds the gore in the drain and the bit with the hammer–as riveting and unsettling as Audition for a bit there.

      Let me put it this way. When they inevitably remake this badboy, which do you think it will most likely resemble/ a taut thrtiller or a grim and grimy horror with thriller elements.

      I think it works because it’s not so easily shoehorned. It’s a great movie either way.

      • Jarv says :

        She’s not main protagonist though Jonah- it’s a rescue film. At no point do you think he’s in danger.

        I agree that that scene is gripping and genuinely tense.

        You know that we’ll get lascivious TP for the remake.

        Still, it’s a great film.

      • Echo the Bunnyman says :

        well, you know I don’t subscribe to usual designations with these things. I’d tell people it was an effin’ redemption story if it got them to watch it.

        I wish horror was more multifaceted here in the states, and would greatly have preferred Saw if it had been less recognizable as ‘horror’.

        I’d actually think it’s best diagnosed as noir-thriller, although the hero here is given a reprieve and gets what most noir heroes never get—a real shot at redemption. Of course, as with most things like this, there’s a trade-off and it’s brutal.

      • Jarv says :

        Yes, I agree with that

    • Echo the Bunnyman says :

      thats the plot of Halloween Conti.

      • Jarv says :

        Not really, because Laurie is the main character in Halloween, not Loomis. Were he the lead then, yes, arguably it is.

      • Continentalop says :

        The Horror movie and the thriller are close cousins (as is the thriller and action movie) but the difference is that in Halloween JLC doesn’t chose to fight the Michael Myers in the end, she just wants to survive.

        Breakdown, 39 Steps, North By Northwest, Rear Window and the Fugitive – these are all stories about characters who want no troubles but encounter an evil plot or being, and are forced to actually stop it because no one else will. They choose in the end to confront it instead of just running away (and yes, they sometimes have a motivation like proving their innocence or rescuing someone, but in the end they still actually seek out and confront the danger).

        Give JLC that option and see would have got the fuck out of that house.

      • Jarv says :

        Those examples mostly make my point. Rear Window, for example, main character is in no danger.

        That’s a big difference as far as I’m concerned

      • Continentalop says :

        Jimmy Stewart is thrown out a window, but I know what you mean: isn’t in any danger MOST of the time. Grace Kelly is at greater risk most of the time.

  9. Jarv says :

    Anyway- have you seen 13?

    • Echo the Bunnyman says :

      its sitting here at home. not yet. you Jarv?

      Did you read my top ten at PCN yet?

      I’ve got an underrated gems of 2010 article coming, and Ive had it sitting around forever, but you preempted it by putting half of them on your list.

      Will try to get the horror list up today. Really wading uphill to get this back to where it needs to be.

      I’ll read Beast Must Die review when I get home. It’s a favorite of mine actually. Quality werewolf film.

      • Jarv says :

        Saw it last night weird as fuck with a brutal ending. The
        first half flits between the tragic and the hilarious.

        I saw the top ten. Only seen a few of them and you couldn’t pay me to watch The King’s Speech

  10. Hawaiian Organ Donor says :

    Nice to see this movie getting some love. Did I send this out to people back in 2008 already? Wow, seems like a lifetime ago.

    Indeed a fantastic film. Shredded the hell out of my nerves.

    For those that haven’t seen it yet, may I recommend another stunning Korean serial killer movie. I Saw the Devil. I know Echo wasn’t thrilled about it but it’s on my top ten of 2010.

    Download it now chaps.

  11. Droid says :

    I’ve been meaning to get my hands on this. It does sound like a good one.

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