Realism And the Art of Violence in The Chaser (2008)
The Chaser is a 2008 South Korean action thriller about a cop turned pimp who must find the man killing his call girls. A tense, brutal film inspired by a real serial killer, it earned high praise and multiple awards.
In Seoul, Korea, Joong-Ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is a somewhat disreputable former detective now pimp, having trouble with his debts because two of his girls have run of, or so he thinks. He sends Mi-Jin (Seo Young-hee), who is already sick, a customer who Joong-Ho realizes is the same name who also called the two missing girls. He suspects the man is kidnapping and reselling his girls, so he calls upon some police friends to help investigate, but they are embroiled in a scandal involving the Mayor where the police are accused of not adequately protecting the city official from a deranged protestor. Meanwhile, Mi-Jin, uncomfortable from the start with this peculiar “John” ends up in the worst possible situation. After attempting to flee his house, he attacks her and she wakes up in a dank and filthy bathroom, bound and gagged.
The “customer”, know as 4885, later identified as Yeong-Min (Jung-woo Ha), because of his phone number, enters the bathroom and sets down a heavy bag of tools beside the trembling girl. Stripped down to his shorts, he takes out a hammer and a chisel and asks the Mi-Jin, who is face down on the tiled floor, if she has any reason to be alive. Screaming, she says there is one. He ignores her and says no one will miss her, then strikes at her but a knock on the front door spares her. Angrily, he bounds to the front door where an elderly couple inquires about the owner of the home, who the man is certainly not. Exposed, the killer slaughters the two passersby and then attempts to move their car so as to arouse further suspicion. In doing so, he bumps into Joong-Ho, whom in the neighborhood searching for Mi-Jin. When he asks the man for insurance details, he quickly realizes he is 4885. Sensing he’s caught, the killer runs away and as the title reveals, the chase begins, not only for the murderer but for the life of a bound and wounded woman hidden in a house only a maniacal butcher knows about.
Directed by Na Hong-Jin, The Chaser (Korean:추격자) might seem by its summary to be just another run-of-the mill action/thriller with clearly defined good guys and bad guys though it is anything but. Joong-Ho is flawed, as many heroes tend to be, but it doesn’t necessarily make him a better person by the end, only more scarred by the brutality of his world he has sunken into. Yeong-Min is a viciously cold figure with great contempt for women. And Mi-Jin is a lonely mother, trying to raise a young daughter, her circumstances what they are because sometimes that is what life becomes. There are no easy routes in this movie. These are clouded characters with broad superficial traits layered over deeply complex motivations.
The film is not light. Nor is it so dark as to be oppressive. Scenes of human suffering in film are of two distinct values. They are either in service of gore, intended to make us squirm and can be gripping as with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (original) or simply appalling as with The Human Centipede franchise. They can also move us with sorrow for horrors that exist in real life. The Chaser is a dark, often disturbing and sometimes hard to watch experience, but that is why it should be seen. There is violence not for the sake of violence but because is it essential. When Yeong-Min strikes, it is not romanticized with musical cues or bits of banter. It is sudden and jarring. He is not a “madman” in the traditional sense from what we expect of madmen in film. He has no greater agenda, no elaborate plan. He is however, dead-eyed and pragmatic, manipulative and quick to adapt. When you watch him, you are terrified not because he is a monster, but because he is human, something altogether scarier. This is far removed from the “safe” films of most American cinema, where very few movies stray from the formula, making sure no matter what happens, there is a happy if not satisfying ending. If you’re looking for predictable, you won’t find it here, and whenever you think this film is settling into the pattern, it throws you off the track. Nothing will prepare you for the final act.
The men in this conflict are not the heroes and villains of most pop-culture action thriller, but rather mere mortals and Na Hong-Jin is patient with his direction. When the killer attempts to flee the angry pimp, the foot chase mentioned above in the darkened alleyways and side streets, up inclines and around parked cars is a breathlessly exhausting sequence that only starts what amounts to a far greater chase. There is an authentic clumsiness to the action, lacking the fluidity and perfection of others in this genre. This is the motif of the entire film, where every character is defined by their actions not by their role, and each situation feels grown from the previous. The end of the foot chase is not a long, drawn-out hyper-choreographed fist fight where men endure what should be bone crushing strikes. Instead, it is savage and one sided, yet powerfully pure and uncompromisingly raw. What follows is equally surprising.
Deeply emotional, sentimental, and also terrifying in its realism, The Chaser is one of the best Korean films ever made, on par if not better than the fan favorite Oldboy. It dares to take a genre and challenge the viewer to break from expectation. While its dark themes and sometimes tragic elements can weigh heavy, the experience is one a foreign film fan should seek out. Haunting and strangely touching, this is one that stays with you long after it’s over.
The Chaser (2008)
Director: Hong-jin Na
Writers: Won-Chan Hong, Shinho Lee
Stars: Yun-seok Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Yeong-hie Seo
Genre: Action, Thriller