Korean filmmaking has come of age in the past decade, with a spate of talented directors revitalising their national film industry. Through features such as Old Boy, Thirst, The Host, Mother, A Tale of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life, the likes of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon have garnered much-deserved critical acclaim and box office success, aiding modern Korean cinema in its rise to international attention.
The Chaser typifies the new breed of Korean film, in essence a traditional shock and splatter serial killer thriller akin to Zodiac, Seven and The Silence of the Lambs, but within a culturally specific and suitably post-modern frame. Directed and co-written by Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea), it proves an unpredictable and suspenseful addition to the growing oeuvre of the film-making nation by fictionalising the real-life Korean case of Yoo Young-cheol (responsible for the murders of 21 prostitutes and wealthy elders during 2003 and 2004).
In the early hours of the evening, on a poorly lit back street in Seoul’s Mangwon district, trouble is afoot. An attractive young woman parks her car and enters an adjoining house, joking to a friend on the phone that she won’t be there long. Days later, patrolling police find the vehicle in the same spot by the side of the road convinced it has been abandoned; former detective turned pimp Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-suk, The Happy Life), in search of one of his increasing number of absent staff, assumes the same.
Business is struggling for Joong-ho, with mounting debts, decreasing customers, and disappearing workers. When young mother Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee, Shadows in the Palace) calls in sick the next evening, he is afraid that she too is planning to walk out on the world’s oldest profession, and orders her to attend the premises of Young-min (Ha Jung-woo, Breath), a lucrative and particular customer. Too late, Joong-ho realises that his other missing girls each visited the same fussy client before disappearing. When he is unable to reach Mi-jin by phone, he sets out after her, embarking on a race against time and a fight against police bureaucracy to get to the truth.
Tailor made for fans of the crime genre and the recent renaissance of Korean film, much like its predecessors The Chaser bursts with dark emotion, surprising twists and thrilling suspense. More than just another slick killer flick despite frantic chases, energetic fist fights, and the mandatory quota of blood and gore, the film is infused with poignant depth and slow-burning character development, complete with unlikeable and morally questionable yet human protagonists fleshed out by their sins but not defined solely by their deeds.
Though the action is largely condensed into a single twelve-hour period, director Na Hong-jin and fellow scribes Hong Won-chan and Lee Shinho (My Mighty Princess) ensure that the feature remains unhurried and focused on character motivation, helped largely by seamless direction and adept casting. The three leads – Kim Yoon-suk, Ha Jung-woo and Seo Young-hee – play their roles with finesse, ensuring that the fallen cop, chilling killer and tortured prostitute are more than just cinematic clichés.
Kim Yoon-suk, in particular, provides a standout performance, allowing the measured growth of his unexpectedly complex character to bloom in a completely believable and authentic fashion, firmly grounded in the narrative. As his antithesis, Ha Jung-woo menaces with quiet compulsion yet resonates with feverish intensity, whilst the plaintive Seo Young-hee provides balance between the two men.
Capturing the complexity of urban crime and the darkness of the serial killer genre, The Chaser is a multi-layered and expertly crafted film experience. Worthy of a place in Korean cinema history beside the work of master directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon, the deftly dramatic anti-hero police procedural proves a strong and satisfying genre masterpiece that exposes the underbelly of crime, its victims and its consequences, with style and skill.