The renaissance in South Korean film was in many ways powered by the action blockbusters that barreled onto the scene in 1999 and 2000. They were films that clearly took their cue from Hollywood, but blazed a trail of their own in story and style. From the high-octane espionage action thriller Shiri (1999) to the ultra-stylish police mystery Nowhere to Hide (1999) to the testosterone driven fight-til-you-drop Die Bad (2000) to the brainy DMZ Hitchcockian political drama JSA (2000) to the touching coming-of-age action epic Friend (2001) and the comic book high school actioneer Volcano High (2001), South Korea was putting every other country to shame for their diverse line-up of action films. Na Hong-jin's debut feature film The Chaser is a product of this decade of honed genre fueled films. A barn-burner that is unapologetically brutal and relentlessly clever, The Chaser is anything but your stereotypical serial-killer thriller. It quickly takes hold of you and keeps you guessing the entire 125 minutes.
Jung-ho is a sympathetic ex-cop turned pimp who runs a small prostitution operation that has fallen on tough times. Two of 'his girls' have gone missing and Jung-ho is convinced they have taken their monetary advance and run off. He finally realizes that the women went missing after visiting the same client, but only after forcing one of his last remaining workers, Mi-jin, to take the same client. Convinced that this john is hiring then kidnapping and selling the women, Jung-ho sets out for revenge. And the chase is on, or so it seems.
Chance and perseverance lead the film down a road that seems to be over in only 30 minutes. But that is when the film takes its first turn against common action narrative, but in favor of genuine drama. Jung-ho unknowingly captures a serial killer, but does so serendipitously during a time when the police department is under great political pressure. Not only are the police being blamed for not protecting the mayor from a poop attacker—or an attacker with poop, as the case may be—but they are also fighting against the bureaucracy of policy procedure. As the police play their cards very carefully Jung-ho's frustrations builds, further fueled by the possibility that the last victim, Mi-jin, his working girl, may still be alive.
With the police stymied by hesitation, Jung-ho settles into the rebel with a cause role. Revenge underscored with a black-and-white notion of justice incites him to follow leads faster than the police can get untangled from the red tape. What he slowly finds out is something we already know: the suspect is a sick sap and is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But with no evidence, Jung-ho simply looks for the trail to where Mi-jin might be, dead or alive.
You can actually feel Jung-ho's transition from foolhardy working-class pimp, to angry immolated stooge, to compassionate cause-driven antihero looking for redemption. Kim Yun-seok digs into this role like he means it, without giving the audience much pause for authenticity. Unlike Ha Jung-woo's conventional serial killer character, Jung-ho is a character of dimension that we spend the entire film trying to understand: a thug and a hero that Kim is able to wrap up in his amazing performance.
Na makes it very clear early on that he is not above visceral brutality. The savagery, brief but unforgettable, not only redirects your expectations of the film, but also builds a great deal of disgust for the villain, helping us to align with Jung-ho. The film's major misstep comes in the form of a finale of stylized unrelenting violence, but it is only the finale to the finale. The scene is so demanding and, to some extent, resolute, that asking viewers for another fifteen minutes detracts from the entire film.
The first hour and 45 minutes represents one of the best acted and cleverly paced action films to come around in some time. Put in perspective, the last 15 minutes act as an end chapter in the form of an homage. That final chunk of film is representative of those to which it owes a debt. If you don't recognize image of Jung-ho raising the hammer or the eerie contents of the fish tank, they are emblems of South Korean action and horror films and their influences. It's the only part of the film that feels even slightly derivative—not an easy task for an action film. Unique and destine for a US remake, The Chaser opens the door for a new era of South Korean action.
The Chaser plays this weekend at the Oak Street Cinema: Friday, May 22- Sunday, May 24 at 9:30pm.
The Chaser is available on R3 Hong Kong DVD and on demand from IFC.