It’s common practice in show business for movies to compare themselves to one another for the sake of publicity. More often than not, these hope to hitch a ride on the success of those films more popular and only tangentally related. If one were to categorize South Korea’s The Chaser thusly, it’d earn a place alongside Seven and other serial killer thrillers with a real mean streak. But although it operates on an agenda similar to David Fincher’s film, The Chaser’s endeavors meet with much less success. Though deception is the name of the game early on, soon does the story grow weary of toying with the viewer’s mind and begin prolonging the plot for kicks.
Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim) is a disgraced cop who’s moved onto pimping, and unfortunately for him, business is bad. In the past few weeks, some of Joong-ho’s girls have disappeared, leading him to believe they skipped town on their own. But he soon suspects foul play after discovering the missing women were all sent to the same man. Joong-ho tracks down the culprit, the sullen Young-min (Jung-woo Ha), who fesses up to a recent string of murders — though it doesn’t end there. Young-min cryptically hints that his latest victim, Mi-jin (Yeong-hie Seo) is alive, sending Joong-ho on a frantic quest to find her. But time is of the essence, as Young-min can be held so long without evidence, after which the psycho will be allowed to roam the streets once again.
The Chaser was a considerable hit in its native Korea last year, and its appeal is easy to see; the premise is simple but handled with a great deal of ambition. Its overall quality is all the more impressive considering it’s from a first-time filmmaker, Hong-jin Na. What I enjoyed most about The Chaser is that Na refuses to let the story be easily pinned, although this is where he runs into trouble later on. For the story’s first half, you’re never quite sure where it’s going to go; it’s obvious that Joong-ho’s journey will be about more than a missing hooker, but it’s Young-min who’s the real wild card. Evil tends to come in two packages, the grandiose kind that usually results in an Oscar nomination or that of a subtle, almost passive persuasion. Ha takes the latter approach with his performance, and while Young-min is a disturbed lad indeed, the ambiguous extent of his misdeeds provides plenty to ponder.
Over the course of its two hours and change, The Chaser adopts number of personas. It’s at once a morality tale, a revenge film, and, as the title indicates, a chase thriller. It also finds time for a little political commentary, as the police use the hunt for Mi-jin to distract the public from an incident involving the mayor of Seoul. The Chaser is part of a lot of things, but the whole is another story. Na nibbles at the thematic treats piled on his plate, but he never makes a meal out of it. Various subplots go by half- or even one third-developed, which, between a main plot that’s overextended, makes for a taxing running time. I still admired the story’s edginess, from Yun-soek Kim’s antihero to a particularly dark turn later on, but the picture of the film I painted in my head was better than what I was actually watching. Young-min’s nonchalant cruelty also fluctuates when the plot threatens its vague nature as it winds down to a close.
In the grand scheme of world cinema, The Chaser isn’t all that hot, particularly when Korean directors like Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim wow audiences without breaking a sweat. But as an all-around film, The Chaser is an improvement over the norm. While other thrillers of its ilk are content with being big-screen “CSI” episodes, it soothes the soul to know that someone somewhere wants to jazz things up a bit.
Read C.J. Prince’s The Chaser review here.