Possessed of the same bloody fatalism that pulses through many a Korean crimer, and topped by Kim Yoon-suk’s star-making performance as a lowlife racing to save a woman’s life, “The Chaser” is a grisly serial-killer thriller that develops into a howl of outrage at the ineptitude of the system. Drawing both white-knuckle tension and moral anguish from a maddening succession of red herrings and wrong turns, Na Hong-jin’s overlong but accomplished debut feature has been a runaway hit at home, and should chase down plenty of offshore bookings before its eventual U.S. remake by Warner Bros.
As written by Na (with Hong Won-chan and Lee Shin-ho also receiving scripting credits), “The Chaser” is more interested in delivering pulp satisfactions than in launching a coherent attack on Korean political authority and law enforcement. Yet the real-world implications of this sweaty-palmed genre exercise — in which the police thwart the cause of justice at almost every turn, forcing a lowly pimp to play the hero — are unmistakable.
Jung-ho (Kim) used to be a detective himself before he started pimping, a line of work where casual brutality comes in handy more often than not. Annoyed that a number of his girls have vanished in recent weeks, Jung-ho sends one of his lovelier assets, single mom Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), to service regular client Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) one night, only afterward deducing that the latter may be responsible for the girls’ disappearances.
Even still, Jung-ho doesn’t suspect murder. For auds, however, Young-min is outed as a total psycho pretty early on, in a squirm-inducing torture-chamber sequence that leaves Mi-jin grievously wounded. But before Young-min can finish the job, he’s called away outside (in one of the pic’s many instances of pitch-black comic distraction), only to run into Jung-ho, who beats him savagely before they’re both arrested.
At the police station, Young-min readily and surprisingly owns up to his gruesome crimes, and Jung-ho sets out to find Mi-jin. “The Chaser” is less whodunit than wheredunit, perversely withholding the location of Young-min’s home from everyone but the viewer, who gets to know Seoul’s Mangwon district quite intimately as Jung-ho, his bumbling sidekick Meathead (Koo Bon-woong) and other cops run around it in infuriating circles.
False leads, matter-of-fact police corruption, an embarrassing (if hilarious) PR emergency involving the mayor and simple human error all hinder Jung-ho’s mission; Na’s basic points about institutional incompetence, and his inquiry about the ethics of vigilante justice, has resonances with Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” and “Memories of Murder,” among other Korean chillers.
Fortunately, the helmer’s accusations never turn petulant; nor does he let us forget who put Mi-jin in harm’s way to begin with. One of the most impressive aspects of Kim’s commandingly energetic performance is his ability to give Jung-ho a conscience without soft-pedaling the pimp’s rough-around-the-edges venality. As his nemesis, Ha (also excellent in Gina Kim’s very different “Never Forever”) is chillingly blank.
Pulse-pounding third act expertly pushes the audience’s buttons, to excruciatingly ironic and ultimately devastating effect. Pic does turn overwrought in the final stretch and would have been wise to end on an earlier note, though action fans won’t mind.
Na directs with muscle and verve, more than fulfilling the genre’s gore requirements yet, more importantly, giving the violence an uncomfortable intimacy. Tech package is excellent, from Lee Sung-je’s agile widescreen lensing to the often grim interiors of Lee Min-bog’s production design.