English Title: The Chaser
Hangul Title: 추격자
Director: Na Hong-Jin
Writer: Hong Won-Chan, Lee Shinho, Na Hong-Jin
Producer: Choi Moon-Su, Jeong Seung-Ku
Cinematographer: Lee Seong-Je
Stars: Kim Yun-Seok, Ha Jung-Woo, Seo Young-Hee
Release Date: February 14, 2008
Runtime : 123 min.
Director Na Hong-Jin’s complex film The Wailing (see review here) was not only one of 2016’s best horror films, but also — in this reviewer’s opinion — a masterpiece of modern suspense, defining just how good and intricate horror can be when done well. Having been entranced by that film, I set my sights on viewing Na’s entire oeuvre.
First on the list was 2008’s The Chaser, Na’s debut feature film based on South Korea’s infamous serial killer, Yoo Young-cheol. In less than a one-year period, Yoo murdered and 21 people, mutilating and – in some cases – cannibalizing his victims. Yoo was convicted in 2005 of 20 murders (one case being thrown out on a technicality) and received the death penalty, a sentence which has not, as of yet, been carried out.
Now don’t get me wrong, The Chaser is not some dry bio-pic but rather an intense, Hitchockian thriller that maintains a remarkable level of suspense throughout and rivals The Silence of the Lambs as one of the best serial killer movies ever made. Imagine if you will, the level of suspense from the last 30 minutes of Silence sustained over a 2-hour movie and you would have The Chaser.
Like in The Wailing, director Na gives us an unlikely hero as the centerpiece of our story. Jung-ho (Kim Yun-Seok of The Priests and Na’s The Yellow Sea), a middle-aged former detective turned pimp, finds himself in serious trouble (financially and otherwise) as two of his girls have gone missing while on professional calls. Jung-ho alternately believes that the girls are simply making off with his money or that someone is stealing and re-selling the young women. One night he sends Mi-jin, one of remaining girls and – unbeknownst to Jung-ho – a single mother of a 7-year-old daughter – out on a call. Though clearly ill with the flu, Mi-Jin (Seo Young-Hee of Circle of Crime and The Accidental Detective) reluctantly takes the call and meets Ji Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo of 2016’s Tunnel and The Handmaiden), a young man living in a disused, gated house in Seoul. Suspicious of Ji from the get-go, Mi-Jin still follows through, following him into a yard overgrown with weeds and into the house. Once inside, Mi-Jin knows she is in trouble (though she is not sure yet the exact nature of the danger) and excuses herself to the restroom where she finds a piece of skull with long black hair attached in the bottom of a dingy shower. With no escape possible from the bathroom possible, Mi-Jin returns to the livingroom and finds Ji still seated where he was before. But when she attempts to leave, she finds the front door padlocked shut. In no time, a terrified Mi-Jin finds herself hog-tied in the restroom as Ji places a spike against the back of her neck and attempts to hammer it into her skull.
Meanwhile Jung-ho has realized that the number that Ji called from is the same number of the customer from the missing two girls. Now convinced that Ji is stealing and re-selling the girls, Jung-ho goes to look for Mi-jin and calls on his buddies still on the police force to help. But when his buddies can’t assist because of a political mess with which they are involved, Jung-ho finds he is all on his own. Will he find Mi-Jin before it is too late and, in the process uncover a serial killer, or will Ji go on killing and claim more victims? The Chase is on.
From the earliest moments of The Chaser, director Na sets a level of suspense that he remarkably maintains and builds upon throughout the film’s two hour run time. Dark and gritty (thanks to Lee Seong-Je’s subtle cinematography and locations ranging from the affluent to the red-light), the film expertly avoids genre-film clichés and makes unexpected and expert moves to keep the tension mounting throughout.
First and foremost, our anti-hero Jung-ho in not some trite movie creation. He’s not a great guy…not some noble soul out to save the world from evil. He isn’t motivated by anything but money and not losing his livelihood. And his livelihood are there women he exploits. This isn’t some crusade to save a young girl he cares about. She is commerce and throughout most of the film, Jung-ho doesn’t even realize the danger Mi-Jin is in. Does he soften during the film? Is there a character arc? Well, yes, to a degree, but Na is smart enough as a director to make sure it isn’t some grand reversal. Jung-ho’s evolution is minor, perhaps even glacial. Any humanizing of Jung-ho occurs subtly and quietly when he discovers Mi-Jin’s young daughter (the impressively mature Kim Yoo-Jung, already a season professional at age 7). There is a nice moment when he seems to realize Mi-Jin was a real human being, but it is so underplayed that we, as an audience, never feel the director is trying to manipulate humanity into a rather despicable lead character. But it is through Jung-Ho’s discovery of Ki-Jin’s daughter, that director Na wisely allows us to project something more noble onto Jung-Ho’s character without ever having the character’s main monetary motivation diminished. In short, Jung-ho is a pimp and Na never explicitly tries to redeem him as a character.
Another way Na flaunts movie clichés is that he allows Jung-ho and killer Ji to meet very, very early on in the film and the resulting chase scene between the two is remarkably simple and realistic. There are no great car chases; no fancy editing gimmicks. These are two real men – one older and slightly over weight and one younger — running through the streets. They are frantic and winded and tired and Na shows it all. It is a chase scene which rivals the best automotive chase scenes in Hollywood films.
What Na also does by having the two meet so early is ratchet up the suspense. Jung-ho is so very, very close to discovering Mi-Jin that it is almost painful for the viewer. One wants to shout at John-ho… “she’s right nearby! Why can’t you see what we already know!”
Na also, smartly, does not delve into the psychology of his killer Ji. We don’t get any scenes where you try to understand why he does what he does. There no attempt at explanation. And one must credit actor Ha Jung-Wo with a nicely understated performance. While Ha is not one of my favorite Korean actors, he delivers nicely. He’s good looking, but you never get a sense he is trying to go against his looks and create menace as so many pretty-boy Hollywood actors might. He is an average Joe played very simply which makes his character all the more menacing without Ha having to chew up scenery.
Not enough credit for the success of this film has gone to actress Seo Young-He who plays Mi-Jin who, with very little screen time, manages to give us a character we as an audience deeply care about. Seo spends most of the film screaming and frightened, but she is the soul of the film. We never fear from Jung-ho’s safety. We as an audience are focused solely on Mi-Jin and the reversals that keep her from being found. While Na and his screenwriters deserve some credit for this – in two small scenes crafting a character we care about – it is Seo’s depth of performance which seals the deal. There is real jeopardy here. Yes, giving the “victim” a young child is a quick easy way to engender sympathy for a minor character, but without Seo’s utterly believable performance we as an audience would see the manipulation and the film would not be nearly as impressive. And, surprisingly – or perhaps because of — Seo’s performance, the role never once feels exploitative.
Now, Na is an expert at audience manipulation, by all means. But it the subtle manner in which he does it that lets us buy it. And that applies to all the twists and turns the movie takes. Na makes expert moves and allows us as viewers to be close enough to the victim to know what Jung-ho does not. In this way, Na maintains an achingly painful suspense. We know Jung-ho is standing right outside the gate of the house that Mi-Jin is held captive in. But Jung-ho does not. We know – when Ji is arrested and confesses to his crimes – what the police don’t…we know where the evidence they lack lies. And when they let Ji go, we are devastated.
Na plays with the audience and that allows him – in a debut directorial effort, no less – to deliver a pulse-pounding film. We as viewers are almost another character in the film and Na is obviously aware of that and uses it – and us – to his advantage.
There is gore and blood but far less, I think, than other reviewers have noted. Most of the violence and gore is implied rather than shown; I think the fact that so many reviews paint it as far more graphic than it actually is is a testament to Na and the imagination he has managed to evoke is his viewers.
In the end, The Chaser is not only a knock-out for a first time director, it is one of the best thrillers of probably the last two decades. Relentless and unforgiving, The Chaser is what Hitchcock’s Frenzy should have been but would never have been allowed to be.