A Familiar Refrain
by Jeff Reichert
Dir. Na Hong-jin, South Korea, IFC Films
One wouldn’t expect a strictly by-the-numbers thriller to find its way into the Film Comment Selects series, given that the annual event has made its name as a kind of brattier, outré sibling of the more august (read: stiff) New York Film Festival. Yet, The Chaser, a film that straightforwardly follows a former detective turned pimp as he races against the clock to locate one of his girls, who he believes is about to be sold into slavery by her trick, doesn’t surprise, shock or awe. Depending on your preference, it actually does one better: first-time director Na Hong-jin’s solid command of thriller/policier basics results in a comforting ride—thrills, humor and scares are well-parceled, characters develop, cheesy Eighties synth washes abound, the police are all morons, and he’s even managed to breathe some life back into the stolid foot chase (twice!). That he gets away with introducing a sad-eyed precocious kid into the narrative is merely icing.
Still, you may find yourself wishing you’d chosen differently amongst the series’ delights while watching the film’s first fifteen or twenty minutes, which, to be honest, feel like the setup to a mid-90s thriller with Morgan Freeman. Our hero, Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), has money troubles, his girls are disappearing, clients are getting unruly and his sidekick (Meathead) just can’t seem to get anything right. Late one evening, he sends Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie) from her sickbed out to meet a client, but in a flash of returned P.I. instinct, recognizes the phone number of the caller and connects it to two of his missing girls. He gives Mi-jin simple instructions: get into the house, take a shower, and while alone in the bathroom, text him the address so he can head over and beat the slaver.
Of course, things don’t go exactly according to plan and Joong-ho finds himself drawn down an increasingly grisly rabbit hole. In a tense, bravura sequence (built around simple crosscutting) that kicks the film into gear, Mi-jin finds herself without cellphone signal in a dingy, bricked-in bathroom which, upon further inspection of the shower drain, turns out to be her client’s abattoir. As Joong-ho waits nearby for her call, she struggles with the murderer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo, doing the usual blankly disaffected serial-killer shtick with credibility), through multiple attacks with a rusty chisel and hammer until he’s interrupted by a knock at the door which spares her life, at least for a little while.
Joong-ho continues searching the neighborhood, only to wind up in a fender bender with Young-min, in a nicely scripted twist. Noticing blood on the young man’s shirt, Joong-ho puts things together, and the first of the film’s lengthy foot chases ensues. Still believing that he’s found himself a human trader, the pimp lays on a pretty heavy beating (in The Chaser fight scenes happen with regularity and feature a pleasurable crunchiness), but it isn’t until Young-min and Joong-ho are taken to the local police precinct that the lad confesses that his crimes are much worse than anyone had imagined. The rest of the film is a morbid blur of searching for Mi-jin with the police, embarrassed by a recent incident that found their town mayor covered in feces thrown by a protestor, inept and usually two steps behind Joong-ho, even as our protagonist is himself regularly derailed himself by obstacles and false leads. That everyone’s scrambling to put together enough proof to keep Young-min in jail before the town prosecutor demands his release adds another bit of pleasurable tension.
The Chaser swept the major categories at the 2008 Korean Film Awards, but before you scoff at a simple genre film walking away with Oscar-substitutes, remember that it was just a few years back that we did the same with The Departed. It’s unclear whether The Chaser signals the arrival of a major talent in one of the world’s strongest homegrown film industries, but it may well might—after seeing Barking Dogs Never Bite a few years back, I wouldn’t have imagined Bong Joon-ho would step to the head of the class a few years later with his hybridized The Host. Given that the viewers who have any inclination at all towards films from abroad have traditionally expressed that interest via the amorphous category of the “art film” (excluding perhaps French comedies), it’s refreshing to occasionally get a mainstream dispatch from elsewhere and witness filmmakers who’ve taken something that’s grown incredibly tired here, pared it back to the essentials, reminding why certain genres found popularity in the first place. In the case of the serial-killer thriller, Na’s beaten the U.S. at its own game. Hopefully someone in Hollywood’s paying attention.