A scene from “The Chaser”
By Lee Hyo-won
Not another serial killer story ― and for St. Valentine's Day? You've got to be kidding. But ``The Chaser,'' coming to theaters Feb. 14, is no joke. It's a film noir with a serious message, but is entertaining despite being ridden with social criticism from beginning to end.
While giving the much-exploited genre a novel edge, it's a classic edge-of-the-seat experience with pulsating action, cynical comic relief and elusively gripping characters. Two hours fly by in no time.
``The Chaser'' marks director Na Hong-jin's feature film debut. He made a name for himself in the international scene for shorts like ``A Perfect Red Snapper Dish,'' and presents an original story that was three years in the making.
Here, the cat-and-mouse game is not between the police and criminal: In American parlance, a less-than-average Joe tracks down a serial murderer, while the corrupt police and public prosecutors prove to be rather useless.
Kim Yun-seok, the award-winning supporting actor from ``Tazza: The High Rollers'' and the familiar face from ``The Happy Life,'' nails down his first lead role. Jung-ho is an antihero who gives a bad first impression. He's a former cop who got fired for bribery, and now runs a so-called door-to-door masseuse service, which is really a sordid call girl business.
Jung-ho is in a sour mood as one call girl vanishes after another. When Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hi) disappears he notices that they've gone missing after getting a call from the same client, or cell phone number.
He suspects human trafficking and sets out to catch the culprit, grumbling how much money he had paid for the girls. ``4885 ― that's you, right? If I catch you, you're dead,'' he says. Jung-ho does track him down, but it's far from heroic. He accidentally crashes into the guy while driving recklessly.
``I didn't traffic them… I killed them. But that woman (Mi-jin) is probably alive,'' killer Ji Myeong-min (Ha Jung-woo) ``casually'' mentions to the police. What's more, he can't seem to remember the exact number of his victims ― was it 10 or 12?
The police have hit the jackpot, as Myeong-min claims to be responsible for a bunch of unsolved serial murders. They try to put a case together in a desperate attempt to save face after a notorious incident that had literally dung-slapped the Seoul mayor.
While the cops are busy poking around in all the wrong places to retrieve evidence, Jung-ho, convinced that Mi-jin is still alive, embarks on his own investigation. It's because she is a valuable asset for business, not a sense of social responsibility.
But corrupt politics among the police and prosecutors, media play and other mishaps set the killer free. A breathtaking chase ensues.
Ha Jung-woo (``Never Forever''), whom renowned director Martin Scorsese had praised as having ``as much potential as Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon,'' brazenly displays an animalistic instinct for acting. He is both passively aggressive and ``aggressively passive'' as the enigmatic murderer.
Is he sexually frustrated? A failed artist? A psychopath? The film does not attempt to deconstruct the mind of the murderer nor does it provide flashbacks of traumatized childhood or such. It simply lays out the senselessly brutal act as it is. A hammer, chisel and a full swing.
The average viewer, despite having been conditioned to movie conventions that offer a solid who, what, when, where and why, have no time to demand reason. Apart from being overwhelmed by the harrowing bloodshed, one is swiftly led from one heart-pounding scene to another.
The script, while a bit rough around the edges, is smart and stylish as it paints a grimacing portrait of contemporary society with all its muck and grit.
We see ugly modern man indulge in instant gratification and easily satisfy sexual urges with one phone call. His anonymity is guaranteed, of course, for names and personal identity have degenerated into numerical digits. Corrupt authorities that are blinded by personal gain overlook his sins.
``Yes, it is,'' Na said bluntly when asked if the movie was a social criticism. ``Fury prompted me to write the story,'' he told reporters following the film's press preview in Seoul. ``Intentions for murder cannot and should not be justified,'' he said.