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,