Welcome back to Asian Crime Action Month. This week I will look at two classic films from South Korea. The first one I watched, The Chaser, directed by Hong-Jin Na in 2008, is not an action film, but a sleazy thriller (my favorite kind of thriller). It’s a cold and unforgiving film that does what South Korean crime films do best: not hold back.
The Chaser follows Joong-ho Eom, a former corrupt cop who has turned to pimping (played wonderfully by actor Yun-seok Kim). Joong-ho catches a serial killer, played by Jung-woo Ha, who’s been murdering his prostitutes with a hammer and chisel. There isn’t enough evidence to put the serial killer away, but the cops can hold him for twelve hours. Joong-ho has reason to believe that one of his prostitutes, Mi-Jin (Yeong-hie Seo), is still alive. Joong-ho has a limited amount of time to save Mi-jin, and ensure the killer is locked away; the chase is on.
The film has a very basic plot, that takes place throughout a small neighborhood in Seoul. It remains engaging because of the characters and ticking clock setup. We follow Joong-ho as he first hunts for the killer, and then Mi-Jin. We also follow the killer, as he commits some murders, and is punished according to the very flawed police system of Seoul. The film follows The Silence of the Lambs style formula of a police procedural, yet unlike many other films that follow that formula, this film still remains fresh and unpredictable. The film overcomes the flaws of this commonly used formula by having the killer get caught early on, instead of relying entirely on the hunt for the killer, The Chaser raises the stakes. The set time limit also picks up the pace, causing every piece of information to become vital in finding Mi-Jin, and putting Jung-woo away for good.
The film reminds me a lot of the 1982 film Vice Squad, which also takes place primarily throughout one night and involves a psychopathic pimp hunting down and murdering a prostitute, while the cops try to track both of them down. These two films are as straightforward as possible with their subject matter, and sleazy as all hell. Vice Squad deals more with the nightly escapades of a prostitute, while The Chaser spends more time looking into the cities’ incompetent and corrupt police force. I like both movies a lot but I like The Chaser just a bit more. The serial killer element adds an extra level of sleaze and violence that I adore. The most memorable character in Vice Squad was the ruthless pimp, Ramrod, while The Chaser has a larger cast of more memorable characters.
Yun-seok Kim is one of the most charismatic actors in South Korean cinema, along with Song-kang Ho, and Min-sik Choi. He puts his all into this character, who is a morally reprehensible person. Kim brings some serious charm to the guy. The farther into the story we go, the less of a bastard Joong-ho becomes and the more we want to see him succeed. At first it looks like he’s just trying to save Mi-Jin due to business, but as we go on, he begins to show his softer side. Joong-ho spends a fourth of the film looking after Mi-jin’s daughter, which adds a lot more depth to him. Joong-ho stays especially likeable in comparison to the socially awkward bastard of a serial killer. He keeps very calm and levelheaded throughout most of the film, only letting his rage get the better of him when he is really provoked. Great serial killers are always the ones that act as if what they do is part of any normal day, and Jung-woo fits the bill. He acts like a confused child, an everyday guy, and a psychopathic killer; you can never tell which one he is going to be at any given time.
The film retains a very dark moody atmosphere throughout. The dimmed lights of the city blend perfectly with the moonlit, grimy streets. Korean films tend to have really detailed noirish lighting. It makes the setting effective in drawing more emotion from the characters. There is humor in the film, primarily with respect to the incompetence of the police and Joong-ho’s quirky personality, but when the film gets serious, it gets really serious. There is a scene near the end of this film that made my jaw hit the floor. The moment when the film started getting slow, and the fast-pace was depleting; that scene came and kicked things into high gear.
The film isn’t heavy on action, but the violence is raw and utilized well. Jung-woo’s killings are gritty, cruel, and remorseless. The chase sequences through the narrow streets are tense, and realistic. The fatigue shown by the characters as the chase progresses adds so much. When people get hit, the sound effects are not overly emphasized “punching sounds,” but instead sound like the sound heard when someone actually gets punched in the face. The final showdown between Joong-ho and Jung-woo’s is not an extravagant martial arts fight; it is a knock down drag out, whatever you can do to survive, fight between two people who have just gone through the toughest days of their lives. They use whatever means available to hurt each other, and by the end of it, you can see their pain.
If you like your thrillers to be as sleazy and unforgiving as possible, then watch The Chaser. It delivers in spades.
Favorite Scene: I can’t say much, but this is the scene that made my jaw hit the floor. It involves a hammer, a corner store, and a very bloody slow-mo sequence.
Written by Tyler Ducheneaux
Images from The Chaser