Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to highlight films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
South Korea! If I absolutely had to live in a country where I didn’t speak the language, it’d probably be South Korea. Beautiful women, amazingly varied geography, and some of the finest international cinema ever to grace the inside of my DVD player. Old Boy, Memories of Murder, 3-Iron, Save the Green Planet… all incredibly awesome movies from the past few years. The only guarantee you get with Korean movies is that there are no guarantees. Comedies more often than not will include tragedy, dark dramas will usually have some highly inappropriate but effective laughs, and suspense thrillers? No character is safe. Not a one.
Which brings us to this week’s film, The Chaser. Joong-ho (Yun-Seok Kim) is having a rough day at work. He owes an exorbitant amount of money to some bad people, some of his employees have quit without notice and another is sick, and he’s losing customers to the competition. Did I mention he’s an ex-cop forced into early retirement who now runs an escort service? A call comes in, and with no other options, Joong-ho coerces the sick girl, Mi-jin (Yeong-hie Seo), to meet with the client, Young-min (Jung-woo Ha). Mi-jin agrees and leaves her daughter home alone (a daughter Joong-ho doesn’t know exists.) We quickly discover the girls aren’t quitting so much as dying at the hands of Young-min, a disturbed young man with a penchant for pummeling with a hammer anyone who gets in his way. Joong-ho is a cynical prick, and even as we know the truth of the missing girls he comes to think his investments are simply being sold to yet another pimp. He sets out to find his girls, his property, but when the truth becomes apparent his quest narrows simply to finding Mi-jin before it’s too late. Along the way he discovers that his hard-edged cynicism and lack of moral center may not be enough to face the challenge of the night to come.
If that summation makes you think you know where the story’s going, think again. For one thing, Young-min spends half of the film’s two-hour running time in police custody. That’s not a spoiler as he gets caught early on. The fact that The Chaser continues to generate suspense while the killer’s off the street is an amazing feat, and a testament to the strength and pacing of first-time director, Hong-jin Na. With the bad guy caught, the focus moves to the police and Joong-ho’s shifting motivations. The character of Joong-ho undergoes a change, like all good characters must, but it’s not from bitter bastard to treacly father-figure as many American films have conditioned us to expect. Mi-jin’s daughter is cute and heartbreaking, but Joong-ho doesn’t exactly discover he loves the little tyke and change his ways just in time for a happy ending. And need I remind you this is a Korean suspense thriller… so try not to grow too attached to some of the characters.
The film has some action in the way of foot chases and fights, with the latter portrayed as only the Koreans can. Fights in Korean films are rarely stylish works of fancy choreography. They usually look painful and real, with flailing limbs, scratching, punching, kicking, and hair pulling. But for the most part this is a character driven, suspense-filled drama with a sick killer, corrupt and inept police, and a protagonist you’ll hate even while he starts to earn your empathy. Yun-Seok Kim in particular does a fantastic job with Joong-ho’s internal dilemma, and Jung-woo Ha disturbs with his calm, methodical, and creepy killer.
There’s a devastating scene towards the end that comes after much emotional struggle, and it’s one that you know would never survive if and when the film received a US remake. That theory will be put to the test as the remake rights to The Chaser were recently picked up by Leonardo DiCaprio. Normally I’d be worried but William Monahan is attached to write the screenplay. Monahan has already proved his ability in adapting Asian films for US audiences… he turned the excellent Infernal Affairs into the equally good The Departed.
The Upside: Unpredictable and suspenseful; great acting; pretty Korean ladies.
The Downside: Cops are stupid the world over; upcoming US remake may not have balls.