The Chaser is an unusually effective thriller from South Korea that fearlessly puts out all the pieces of its puzzle to paint an angry, scathing social attack. It is also rare in how it mounts its tension not so much on shocks and revelations but strictly on the pervading emotional drive of frustration. We even know who the prime suspect in question is from the very beginning and the suspense builds in its sadly, aggravatingly realistic portrait of the country’s police force that is often much more concerned with protecting its external image rather than properly upholding the law.
The actual titular protagonist himself is not exactly of the heroic kind either and even as an antihero, the emphasis would be far greater on the “anti.” He is Joong-ho (Yoon-seok Kim), an ex-cop now turned pimp who, by the way we see him treating his prostitutes, suggests that he was probably disgraced because he treated his suspects or even his fellow policemen just slightly worse. He is not even kind enough to grant one call girl, Mi-jin (Yeong-hie Seo), proper sick leave when she needs it (when a call comes from him on her cell phone goes, the caller ID reads, “Filth”).
Moreover, several of his call girls have lately gone missing. He initially merely assumes that they are running away in order to avoid paying their debts. But he soon tracks by a common cell phone number and finds that they actually all went missing after seeing the same client, the very same one that Mi-jin is going to as well. This leads him to the selfish conclusion that this guy may just be secretly selling his call girls away somewhere. Stop reading here if you wish to watch this film cold.
His police instincts soon start telling him otherwise and it is not revealing too much that the client, Young-min (Jung-woo Ha), is a serial killer, which the film clearly establishes at the 15 minute mark in a brutally harrowing scene where he attempts to strike her with a chisel but is interrupted by a phone call. Joong-ho even manages to catch up to him and beat him to a pulp, though they are both taken in when they are spotted by the police because Joong-ho is not a cop anymore. At the police station, the killer is not coy about revealing that he has killed the missing prostitutes as if goading and challenging the cops to find enough evidence on him (they don’t have a warrant on him yet).
The movie’s strategy to build dread is by using the audience’s superior knowledge to point a critical finger at the various cops’ vexing incompetence to properly find the killer’s latest victim. They are not even doing this primarily to save Mi-jin but the captain says himself that his cops should even plant evidence to solve the case in order to draw the media away from an earlier embarrassing situation in which the mayor was doused with human feces under the police’s watch. Joong-ho, working as an outsider, is able to quickly figure more things out that would actually help the cops but his current profession and his former disgrace combined with the fact that he had recklessly beaten the suspect means that hardly anyone will listen. Some of that ignorant judgment from his former fellow cops including his past friend, Gil-woo (In-gi Jeong) teeters into morbid comedy in seeing just how inept they are in overlooking such obviously transparent information and insights.
Many might think that this portrayal of the police force is too cynical but the characters are all so vividly drawn and acted with rough and gruff weathers and the story is told with such conviction that we soon believe it must have the basis of truth (and in fact, the movie is based on a shocking real-life case). The first-time director, Hong-jin Na, along with his co-writers, Shin-ho Lee and Won-Chan Hong, is also uncanny in how he breaks so many conventions of most thrillers and builds a rooting human interest almost outside the initially thoroughly unsympathetic nature of the antihero. We care initially because we have seen that the already sick Mi-jin leaves a 7-year-old daughter (very convincingly acted by Yoo-jeong Kim) home alone to do her work at night. It is when Joong-ho sees that the girl cannot be left alone in this situation that he starts to regain his own conscience and really care about saving Mi-jin’s life.
It is also a testament to Yoon-seok Kim that he manages to maintain a credible gravity of doggedness within his character to help us ultimately identify with his quest (though his “doggedness” is upped with some doses of physical brutality on the various men he questions). Jeong-woo Ha, on the other hand, has a different kind of acting challenge in showing that classic, seemingly contradictory case of almost mild-mannered evil. Many heinous crime stories revolve around deranged people who are never suspected to be cruel by their neighbors because of their quiet, introspective nature and Ha is scary in balancing those two traits.
Although the revelations of the murders are grisly and disturbing, director Na tackles it with an artful tact devoid of the exploitative lingering usually found in these kinds of thrillers. Some may still find the film a tough watch because the movie rarely allows respite from its foreboding tone despite that there are some very good old-fashioned foot chases staged in between. But Na lays out his clues very clearly and ingeniously to allow us to follow Joong-ho return to his detective thinking and keep us riveted (albeit he does rely on a somewhat convenient plot coincidence at a climactic scene).
The recent wave of South Korean cinema has become renowned for the fascinating ways it bends the rules of traditional movie genres (and even cross-pollinates them). With the new wave that has included other accomplished crime thrillers like 2003’s masterful Memories of Murder, audiences in the country have also responded strongly to real movies that break the conventional genre mold and mount a brutally relevant social commentary (this movie is the most commercially successful film released in Korea so far this year and yet another Hollywood remake is reportedly already being planned). And while so many routine thrillers as well as horror films contort and pain themselves to merely conceal the identity of its criminal perpetrator and/or nastily fixate on the slashing and gore, superior ones like The Chaser see through it and realize that it is the feeling of human frustration that audiences empathize with and build fear and apprehension from.
Bottom line: Pretty close to brilliance.