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'The Chaser' Is a Superb Thriller

2009/01/04 | 758 views | Permalink | Source

Na Hong-jin's debut feature restores faith in Korean genre cinema
Kyu Hyun Kim (qhyunkim)

Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok, "Tazza: The High Rollers" - "Tazza: The High Rollers") is a former cop turned pimp for a "massage parlor". He is convinced that a young, dorky customer Young-min (Ha Jung-woo, recently on a roll, also excellent in US-lensed "Never Forever") has kidnapped and sold his "girls", including Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee). Unfortunately, what the cops uncover is far worse: Young-min is an impotent serial killer who uses a chisel and a hammer to slaughter his female victims. While the police investigation stumbles and takes detour, Jung-ho becomes increasingly aware that Young-min's latest victim, Mi-jin, is still alive somewhere, bleeding and bound: and that he is the only person who can rescue her.

"The Chaser" is the hands-down grittiest, snazziest and gutsiest Korean thriller of 2008, possibly in last three years or so. It is difficult to believe that this is a feature film debut for the director Na Hong-jin. Supported by an intricate, sharply intelligent screenplay that always remains a half-step ahead of the viewer expectations, Na shows a complete command over the taut but intricately woven narrative, generating a huge amount of good old-fashioned suspense without resorting to any gimmicks.

Given his superlative control over the pace and rhythm of the storytelling, it is not surprising that there is a rumor that Christopher Nolan of "The Dark Knight" fame is interested in a remake. Technical credits excel as well: DP Lee Sung-je, lighting director Lee Chol-o and production designer Lee Min-bok contribute greatly to the hauntingly naturalistic re-creation of the Seoul landscape. A moody, acoustic-minimalist score by Kim Joon-seok and Choi Yong-rak is uncommonly effective.

"The Chaser" is definitely the best police procedural film since Bong Joon-ho's "Memories of Murder". I disagree with the view that it sides with Dirty Harry-like vigilantism over the legal protections accorded even to the criminal suspects. The police in "The Chaser", convincingly foul-mouthed and perpetually exhausted but struggling mightily to find an acceptable compromise point between upholding civil rights and using old beat-'em-up-until-they-confess methods, is just a bunch of working stiffs, neither "the evil establishment" nor heroic public servants. Frankly, I would recommend this film to any foreign viewer who might hold the view that the Korean police today are baseball-bat wielding thugs, based on total fantasies like Lee Myung-se's "Nowhere To Hide".

In addition to all this we have a positively amazing performance from Kim Yun-seok. Jung-ho, as played by Kim, has a bloated, sad-sack mien with the undercurrent of hostility and desperation. Kim never once mugs for the viewer's sympathy, and yet, as the film unfolds, he constantly demolishes our (genre-bound) expectations about how Jung-ho would behave in a given situation. He begins as a truly irredeemable scumbag, and he doesn't exactly become a white-winged angel by the end, but he does not become an ugly, one-liner-spouting vigilante " hero " of a typical American movie of this kind, either. I would venture to say that Kim's performance in "The Chaser" begins where Choi Min-sik's ends in "Failan". Yes, it's THAT great.

The film's weak link, in my opinion, is Young-min, the serial killer character. It's really not Ha Jung-woo's fault at all, as he delivers a terrific performance as a genuine sociopath. It's that a serial killer as a cinematic device cannot generate enough fascination and interest any more, unless some creative twist is involved, a la "Our Town". Young-min's presence also ensures that the movie occasionally veers off into the territory of extreme gore (climaxing with a scene in which a character is bludgeoned to death in slow motion -- one both disturbingly beautiful and mind-bogglingly horrid), possibly losing a section of the audience who might have otherwise appreciated it.

Not for the faint of the heart, "The Chaser" nonetheless goes a long way in restoring the confidence not only in the Korean cinema's capacity to churn out a terrific crime thriller but also in the untapped filmmaking talent in Korea, still left to be discovered.

☆☆☆★★★

2009 OhmyNews

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