Directed by: Na Hong-jin || Produced by: Kim Su-jin, Yun In-beom
Screenplay by: Na Hong-jin, Lee Shin-ho, Hong Won-chan || Starring: Kim Yoon-seok, Ha Jung-woo, Seo Young-hee, Koo Bon-woong, Kim Yoo-jung, Jeong In-gi, Park Hyo-joo
Music by: Kim Jun-seok, Choi Yong-rak || Cinematography by: Lee Seong-je || Edited by: Kim Seon-min || Country: South Korea || Language: Korean
Running Time: 123 minutes
Dropped like an atomic bomb in his directorial debut, Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser is one of the most mercilessly bleak thrillers you’ll ever see, rivaling even David Fincher’s Seven (1995) and fellow Korean great Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy (2003) in terms of sheer morbidity and sinister emotion. While the film is not a perfect genre film, nor a perfect film in general, you’d be hard pressed to find a film that’s as dark yet as absorbing as this one. It’s so devilishly unsettling in its deliverance of one of the most coldhearted crime stories ever.
The Chaser is a serial killer narrative loosely based on the events of a real-life Korean rampage that took place in the early 2000s. Its story is divided into three distinct parts: A cat-and-mouse opening act, an old fashioned detective story in the middle, and a hate-fueled revenge flick by the finale. Its story mixes and matches non-traditional narrative structure and several well placed surprises throughout. The fact that the film makes the serial killer’s crimes so terrifying and urgent even when the antagonist is held in police custody for the majority of the film is impressive.
The killer himself is far removed from the evil criminal masterminds of Hollywood’s most famous serial murders (e.g. Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs , John Doe in Seven], though his crimes are similarly gruesome and disturbing. Ha Jung-woo’s take on the familiar villain archetype is a more realistic one — he’s just a scumbag who preys on those weaker than he, and uses the often inept criminal justice system to escape his just dues. Though we never feel much respect, let alone affinity for the character, he’s an incredibly well written and performed body toward which the viewer can direct their hatred, as well as fear and terror when watching through the perspective of his victims. He functions perfectly in the narrative as is.
The rest of the cast is built around an oddball lead (Kim Yoon-seok) who plays principal nemesis to Jung-woo’s serial killer. A former police detective turned social outcast and pimp, Kim’s left-field approach to heroism mixes well compared to his more straitlaced former colleagues and law personal, and poses an interesting philosophical matchup to Jung-woo’s moral wretchedness. Those who fill out the remainder of the law enforcement ranks do their part, particularly in a haunting revelatory interrogation sequence of Ha Jung-woo, and principal victim Seo Young-hee gives it her all from her terrifying first encounter with Jung-woo to her bitter demise.
Hong-jin plays this story like a neo-noir crime thriller. His direction blends the flashy lights and colorful palette of modern Korean metropolises with the low-key lighting and grimy, ominous feel of classic Hollwyood noir features. There are a few daytime sequences, but you barely remember or notice them as the constant gloom of the narrative envelopes every plot-point and location change. Top to bottom, The Chaser is far more innovative with its screenplay than its cinematography or direction in general; Hong-jin doesn’t so much think outside the thriller box as he sharpens what Asian (and Western) filmmakers have done before, but he does such a reliable job filming an engrossing tale you can only compliment him.
If you want to get acquainted with the recent cinephile craze of post-millennial Korean filmmaking, The Chaser is a picture-perfect example of the industry’s modern staple. Most of Korea’s cinematic fame stems from dark, bloody thrillers of the likes of Oldboy and Memories of Murder (2003), the majority of which are of amazingly high quality. However, I would add this film to that list of prototypical must-see Korean crime thrillers. It’s as dark and bloody as the lot of them, and doesn’t stop chilling your blood till long after the credits roll. It’s a quality, classic bag of thrills that embraces pessimistic realism over fantasy in its contemplation of criminal justice and redemption.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Chaser’s biggest strength is its writing, with screenwriter-director Hong-jin sketching an ingeniously left-field plot that keeps you guessing till the killer’s in handcuffs… and then keeps you guessing some more. Yoon-seok and Jung-woo lead the team as the grizzled hero and morally decrepit sociopath, respectively. Their cat-and-mouse relationship is engrossing, and they’re complimented by a strong supporting cast.
— However… the final fistfight is a little too dark to the point where you can’t see what’s going on, but that’s about it.
? Wanna know what this film feels like? Listen to this.