(review originally written in 2008 for LKL)
I was delighted when I discovered, at long last, a Korean film showing again in a city centre cinema, something that seems very rare these days. The basic story that I knew before I went in, was that it concerned a former cop who was now a pimp, who realises that the girls on his books who have gone missing, were all requested by the same person. Realising he had just sent one of his girls that night to that very same person he heads out to track them down wanting ‘compensation’ for the girls he has lost, but they have not been sold on like he suspects, but brutally murdered.
‘The Chaser’ is a debut feature written and directed Na Hong-Jin and one worthy of the Grand Prize award at the 44th Baeksang Art Awards and 5 of the 11 awards it was nominated for at the 45th Daejong Awards – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Photography, Best Production. Best of all, it topped the box office in S. Korea with audiences of over 5 million – the best Korean film of 2008 so far. It was also well received at the Cannes Film Festival and its general release in the UK is testament to its appeal.
Taking place mostly at night, and among the dark alleys and the confined spaces of houses and hotels, the film has a very dark oppressive feel to it – deliciously so. As with all Korean movies that involve a psycho-killer, the violence is harsh and bloody but, in this case, also unflinching, candid and unglamorous. There is no artistic ballet or Manga style violence (a la Old Boy) with the hammer, but the simple cold actions of murder, so convincing that it’s hard to believe it was not an event you have witnessed for real. The dark humour so often present in Korean film is timed perfectly to ease the tension enough for you to breathe until the next part and drops in a touch of sentiment without being over saccharine.
The main focal point for me is Kim Yoon Suk who portrays the pimp nicknamed ‘filth’ with the jaded air of a man who really is at his lowest point, who cares little for others let alone himself. Having recently seen him in ‘Like a Virgin’ as a drunkard father, it’s easy to see how, based on appearance maybe, he is capable of carrying such roles, but there is more depth to the part in ‘The Chaser’. There are hints of the scandal that brought him down, the anger that he has to lead his life like this and of course the personal journey towards redemption that is subtly woven into his actions. As a viewer we begin to echo his desperation, as we are simply helpless bystanders, aware of all that is going on but unable to direct him towards his goal.
Ha Yung Woo, who you might recognise from two Kim Ki-Duk films ‘Breath’ and ‘Time’, plays the serial killer with an air of calm dispassion that makes him truly creepy when his true nature is exposed. His casting makes it more understandable how the girls might not think there was anything wrong with him – good looking, a slightly shy seeming demeanour, an average salary worker type. The change to killer is not much of a big step until the violence starts and one that seems almost unbelievable, even when being questioned at a police station.
The dark mood of the film, the pimp’s misplaced urgency when searching for the girl, the ineptitude of the S. Korean police force – all threads that intertwine to create the tension that draws you in. That it is based on true events makes it even more shocking and highlights how easy it is to be anonymous in the dark heart of Seoul, to be so lost and uncared for that even the city police are more focused on a politician than the citizens. The film does well to highlight this situation, showing you a truth but making it the backdrop for events rather than attempting to smother you with it.
It is only during Korean films I feel there is real involvement from the audience when it comes to characters. Though the theatre wasn’t even half full, the laughter and then the distinct exasperated mutterings towards the end scenes just showed how much the film drew everyone in. As I was leaving, I couldn’t help but overhear the enthusiastic statements made by one particular member.
“…it was brilliant -you didn’t know who any of the actors were or what they had been in before, but they were all just so perfect for the part and they fitted so well together – it was so good…I really enjoyed it…”
Its good to hear that when leaving any film, but something I rarely hear at all, if ever, when exiting from something Hollywood has produced. Just goes to show that something more thought provoking is still very much enjoyed. Its definitely a film I will be buying as it deserves a few repeat viewings.