Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Chaser (Chugyeogja)


The Chaser become a box office hit in South Korea earlier this year, and as the byline on the poster goes, it's highly acclaimed, and it shocked moviegoers. I won't dispute either claim though, because it reaffirmed that there are quality crime thrillers coming out from their film industry after dismal efforts like Typhoon or Fate. The DVD has already been out in the shops overseas and I was tempted to get it just to experience what the fuss is about. Finally being released here this week, The Chaser boasts plenty of nail biting sequences, and scenes that would work the heart despite having most of its violence done off screen.

The protagonist happens to be quite an unsavoury character Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), an ex-cop turned pimp who's running into some severe manpower issues when his girls start to disappear from their work. A pattern he noticed though is a peculiar caller, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) being the last customer serviced, and unwittingly he had sent one of his girls, Mi-kin (Seo Yeong-hie) to meet up with him for business. Smelling a rat, and thinking that the caller might be a human trafficker of sorts, he tries to spring a trap, but Murphy's Law kicks in, and hence begin the cat and mouse game.

In some ways the movie reminded me of the Hollywood movie (and now Hong Kong remake) Cellular, where a female in distress tries hard to contact the outside world for help, and those on the outside trying to work their way in to locate that needle in a haystack. What surprised me though, is that the film adapted a strategy used by Confessions of Pain in showing the hand of the serial killer very early on in the film, but unlike the Hong Kong movie, The Chaser somehow pulled it off through pacing done correctly, and managed to sustain interest and attention all the way to the end. The title might suggest pursuit, but it's not always having characters on the run, with nicely punctuated moments of human drama to provide a level of humanity, or inhumanity, to its characters.

Kim Yun-seok as Joong-ho starts off as an uncaring boss whose priority is money, and thinks the world revolves around riches. His motivation for getting into the sex trade never really gets explained, though one can suspect that his hot headed temperament would have made it extremely difficult for him to function as a cop, or to gain support from his superiors when he goes berserk. There's still some good in him though through his redemption, when he starts to realize just how much of a jerk he had become, and goes all out to look for his staff when the police all but knock on the wrong doors.

The Chaser also became a commentary of the inefficiencies of the police force, of the huge disparity in quality between seasoned investigators, and beat cops. It's also bogged down by the usual bureaucratic nonsense of covering the backsides of superiors or situations that put the department under bad light, and questions certain situations when investigations are carried out only for various avenues of politicking. What's more of a shocker here is, despite that which we've seen on investigation integrity in Memories of Murder, that fabricating of evidence still is a norm, where superiors tell their underlings that it is perfectly OK to cook up a story to fill in some blanks in reports, or when legwork turn out to be unfruitful, and in extracting confessions.

Granted the movie paces itself against the clock given that suspects have to be released 12 hours after an arrest without a warrant, it makes for some excellent race against the clock moments, especially with the villain overtly taunting the cops with red herrings and mocked insanity, which actor Ha Jung-woo does a fine job with. Investigations get carried out in both the orthodox, proper way involving the authorities, and one working outside the system, where you'd be put in a spot to cheer the vigilantism and absence of red tape, which even the cops support, and mock the ineptness of policing with one hand tied behind the back.

If you're one who's easily worked up through injustices put on screen, then you might want to keep your temper in check when sitting through The Chaser, as the last act will almost inevitably make you feel exasperated, and seethe with rage at the developments in the narrative. It might not be as good as the excellent Memories of Murder, but this stylish package comes close. Recommended!

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