Korean filmmaking has come of age in the past decade, with directors such as Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon revitalising their national film industry. With features such as Old Boy, Thirst, The Host, Mother, A Tale Of Two Sisters and A Bittersweet Life receiving much-deserved critical acclaim, international exposure and box office success, modern Korean cinema is evolving into a must-watch genre all of its own.
The Chaser typifies this 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 first-timer Na Hong-jin loosely based on the real-life Korean case of Yoo Young-cheol (responsible for the murders of 21 prostitutes and wealthy elders during 2003 and 2004), The Chaser is an unpredictable and suspenseful feature that lives up to the promise of its compatriots, and well worth watching before the upcoming US remake (by The Departed scribe William Monahan, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumoured for the lead).
In the early hours of the evening, on a poorly-lit back street in Seoul's Mangwon district, 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), 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 - so when young mother Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee) 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), a lucrative and particular customer. Too late, Joong-ho realises that his other missing girls each visited the same fussy client before disappearing, and 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.
Certain to please fans of the crime genre and of the recent renaissance of Korean film, The Chaser bursts with dark emotion, surprising twists and thrilling suspense, much like its predecessors. 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 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 skill, ensuring that the fallen cop, chilling killer and tortured prostitute are more than just cinematic cliches. 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. An interesting, dramatic and gloomy anti-hero police procedural, this latest Korean masterpiece is a strong and satisfying film that exposes the underbelly of crime, its victims and its consequences, with style and skill.
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 the acclaim showered upon it, and of a place in Korean cinema history beside the work of master directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Ji-woon, it is essential viewing for astute film fans.
NB: Portions of this review originally appeared on DVD Bits.
Sarah is the Editor of DVD Bits and The Reel Bits. She can be found on Twitter at @swardplay, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.