Frustration: the thrill of The Chaser

Korean director Hong-Jin Na’s debut is a dark and deadly delight where the overwhelming theme is impotence.

Cécile Schublin

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‘You bitch, you’re dead if I catch you.’

Jung-Ho, an ex-cop turned pimp, is not too happy as he retrieves his car, abandoned by one of his girls while on a job. But Jung-Ho will never catch ‘the bitch’; she has already been murdered by her last client. And, besides, Jung-Ho has other problems to deal with: he owes money he can’t pay back since several of his call girls have gone missing without clearing their debts and another one, Mi-Jin, is sick.

Jung-Ho forces the feverish Mi-Jin to meet a client. However, he soon figures out that this client, Young-Min, was also the last man that all the disappeared girls saw. Convinced that the guy is selling his prostitutes behind his back, Jung-Ho asks Mi-Jin to tell him the client’s address as soon as she gets there. But things don’t quite go as planned, given that Young-Min is into murdering, rather than selling, prostitutes…

After box-office success in South Korea, and with plans for a US remake set to star Leonardo di Caprio, Hong-Jin Na’s debut feature Chugyeogja – opening in the UK today as The Chaser – lives up to the hype. Don’t fret if you’re planning to see the movie – this potted guide to the plot is no spoiler. In this unusual thriller, the identification of the murderer, his arrest by the police and the confession of his crimes all take place in the first quarter of the movie. The ‘thrill’ in this thriller is that if the police do not find enough evidence to build a case against him within 12 hours, the killer will be released, free to pursue his morbid endeavours.

So begins a tense race against the clock, during which the audience – who at the very start of the film get to see where Young-Min buries the corpses of his numerous victims – watch Jung-Ho and the police struggle with limited time and no other lead than a set of keys. Meanwhile, somewhere in this labyrinth of closed doors, Mi-Jin is struggling for life.

The tension in The Chaser comes not from fear, but frustration: the frustration of knowing without being able to tell, the frustration of witnessing distress without being able to help, the frustration felt in the face of Jung-Ho’s powerlessness and the incompetence of the police. In one scene, a psychiatrist suggests Young-Min’s physical impotence is the source of his urge to kill. Ironically enough, as the narrative progresses, it seems that everyone else – the audience included – is impotent, too.

Yet, however frustrated the viewer might feel, director Hong-Jin Na maintains interest by a perfectly balanced use of all the ingredients of the thriller genre, impressively mastered for a first film – crude, even cruel scenes of violence, a dark and desolate setting drenched in rain, disturbing religious elements, peculiar supporting characters. And, of course, the core of any self-respecting thriller: a serial killer and a detective, both beautifully interpreted, ambiguous yet complementary characters, whose numerous confrontations give the narrative an intense rhythm.

In The Chaser, nothing is quite as one would expect. The usually heroic figure of the detective turns out to be a dirty cop turned pimp, whose investigation methods come closer to assault and battery than brainy deductions. In contrast, the serial killer looks like a socially retarded and apparently inoffensive young man – while underneath being a seriously disturbed and seemingly motiveless killer.

One of the most controversial aspects is the portrayal of the police. No wonder Jun-Ho got out: these guys are clowns. Take their motivations for example. One would think that having a serial killer on their hands and a dozen missing persons would be enough to start an inquiry. But no, this is of little significance compared to the major scandal they have to deal with: the Mayor just had some human feces thrown at him during an official visit under the police’s watch. Now their only preoccupation is to try and hide the scandal, and they see Young-Min’s potential conviction as a welcome distraction. Only when these cops are confronted by the violence of a murder scene do they realise that it is the potential victims, not appearances, that need to be rescued.

The Chaser successfully subverts the generic ‘whodunnit’ form and exploits the viewer’s most human feelings of frustration and empathy. With humour, and a good dose of cynicism, Hong-jin Na even succeeds in adding a sharp and infuriating social commentary.

This might be Hong-jin Na’s first film, but it certainly won’t be the last. Leonardo Di Caprio and screenwriter William Monahan (the pair have already worked together on The Departed) were wise to option the remake – although it remains to be seen whether a US version will retain the cruelty and impact of the original.

Cécile Schublin is a former intern at spiked.

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