Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser is one gritty, nasty piece of filmmaking. And I mean that as a good thing. This is a crime film where violence is glamorized or sanitized; where life and death hurts; and where the concept of “good guys” is totally ignored. It’s not the first film to take this stance, and it’s not the only one that can make these claims, but Jesus Christ, it’s pretty fucking brutal.
The story goes something like this: Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok) is a pimp. He’s the hero of the story. Two of his prostitutes have gone missing. First, he thinks they’ve run off: he’s “the chaser” of the title, looking for his women. Joong-ho is a former cop, but this almost seems like a detail added just to make sure that there’s something about him that the audience can identify with. In one of the few instances of him doing detective work, Joong-ho discovers that his two missing gals both had the same last client, who turns out to be Yeong-min (Ha Jeong-woo). Joong-ho assumes that Yeong-min has sold his women out from under him, and wants vengeance. After realizing that a third prostitute, Mi-jin, is currently with Yeong-min, Joong-ho calls her and convinces her to go the guy’s house (they only have his cell number), excuse herself to go to the washroom, and to call him and tell him the address. Mi-jin reluctantly agrees, only to be captured by Yeong-min, who isn’t a flesh-peddler but a total fucking psychopath. What follows is one of the more horrific scenes I’ve witnessed on film.
And then things take a strange turn; strange, that is, considering the genre. Because, by about 30 minutes into the film, Joong-ho catches Yeong-min, and they both end up in police custody. With only a quarter of the movie finished, the killer has been captured. Better still, he even admits to his crimes. Except that he provides them with no evidence, and they’ve already arrested someone for earlier crimes which Yeong-min is now claiming to have committed. Added to these problems is the fact that, in apprehending Yeong-min, Joong-ho beat the ever-loving shit out of him, and now it looks like the cops are brutalizing some poor, innocent man just to pin some serious crimes on him.
So, due to a mixture of police incompetence, and some bizarre police rules and procedures that, for all I know, are actually real, Joong-ho only has 12 hours to find Mi-jin--that is, if she’s still alive. To be sure, his interest isn’t out of sympathy for her situation; rather, Mi-jin is his property, and this pimp wants his fucking money.
The Chaser is actually based on a real case. Yoo Young-cheol killed his victims in similar fashion, and (to some extent) pimps were involved in actually bringing him to justice. Over the course of Young-cheol’s crime spree, he has apprehended by police more than once, generally on different charges, and ended up getting away, so I assume that the difficulties that the police have in The Chaser are a condensed version of these problems.
(Read about the real case here)
The Chaser is quite remarkable, in it’s grim outlook and gritty aesthetic. The narrative has the affect of making its protagonist, no matter how reprehensible, into a sympathetic character, and so you actually have to look past your naturally-occurring connection to Joong-ho to realize what an utter piece of shit he is. Certainly it’s easy to empathize with him over Yeong-min, who is such a crazy weirdo that he’s almost alien. Yeong-min isn’t a Hannibal Lecter-style murderer, who is as brilliant as he is maniacal, or even a stoic badass; rather, he’s a pathetic, insignificant fuck who gets his rocks off killing women, and only gets away with it due to police incompetence.
Rumour has it that The Chaser is being remade in America, probably sometime next year (2010). I have a hard time believing that the bleak outlook of the original will remain. I don’t know if the general movie-going audience will be able to swallow a movie with such an unremittingly dreary aesthetic and emotional view of humanity, where your only choice is between sleazy and psychotic.