With the countless stories yet to be committed to film, what is it that draws Korean filmmakers time and time again to the same worn-out formulas and conventions? This and sundry other cosmological reflections are what passed through my mind as I patiently endured the two-hour running time of Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser, the thriller that held domestic audiences in thrall and is slated for a remake by Warner Brothers. However, anyone anticipating anything approaching the level of storytelling found in the Infernal Affairs franchise will be sorely disappointed. Halfway through viewing this outrageously mediocre piece of filmmaking, I had to press the “pause” button to ascertain whether the film I was watching was indeed the one that received so much critical acclaim, was invited to the Cannes Film Festival, and went on to take the prize for Best Film at the 45th Grand Bell Awards.
First, let’s get the plot out of the way. Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok), a down-on-his-luck pimp, having lost a couple of his call girls and believing them to have been sold off, attempts to find the whereabouts of the culprit with the help of one of his prostitutes (Seo Yeong-hee), but the plan goes awry when she becomes his next victim. A chance encounter brings Jung-ho and the killer (Ha Jeong-wu) face-to-face, but several minutes later the police intervene and he is taken into custody. The department, still reeling from the embarrassment of a botched security detail involving the mayor of Seoul, is determined to convict the detainee when they discover that he is behind a series of unsolved murders, but there remain two obstacles: they don’t know where the bodies are buried; and the police are hopelessly incompetent. A race against the clock ensues as the department has only twelve hours to gather enough evidence to press charges, failing which the killer will be set free. Meanwhile, Jung-ho, himself a former law enforcement officer, begins his own investigation.
Critics have been quick to point out the straightforward presentation and the novel lack of stale plot twists that undermine so many other thrillers, which would be true, were it not for the many inconsistencies and loose-ends—from the minor, to the implausable, to the downright silly and offensive—that damage the film.
It has been suggested that director Na has lifted a few pages from the creator of Oldboy, but try as I might, I failed to find any trace of the dazzling virtuosity, the baroque excesses, or the vitriolic humor that characterize the universe of Park Chan-wook. Perhaps it is the unrelenting cynicism that they are referring to: for the characters, much like the film itself, have few redeeming qualities—an altogether sordid confection that appeals neither to the intellect nor to the imagination, leaving nothing behind but a foul aftertaste.
Since we’re talking about unsavory characters, attentive viewers might detect in Kim Yun-seok’s trash-talking pimp a more than passing resemblance to the onscreen persona Choi Min-sik cultivated from Failan to Crying Fist to Oldboy. For those unacquainted with Choi’s off-camera activities, he was one of the most outspoken critics of the repeal of the Korean screen quota system and vowed not to make another film until the law was reinstated. One wouldn’t have thought that Kim had the acting chops for a lead role such as this, given his unmemorable performances in Like a Virgin and The Big Swindle, but he was surprisingly effective in Choi Dong-hoon’s overly ambitious War of Flower.The role also demands an uncommon measure of stamina, as the forty-something actor is called on to outrun and outfight an opponent ten years his junior, and to fend off as many as five police officers at a time—feats that border on the incredible.
In contrast to Kim’s chauvanistic bravado, Ha Jeong-wu’s killer is almost lackadaisical, dispatching his victims in the most lethargic fashion. Some have praised the lack of hysterics that characterize serial killers in other thrillers, which might be true—were it not for the fact that he is also one of the most inept ever to ply his trade.
Concerning Seo Young-hee’s role, there really is very little to say, other than when she pulls up in a subcompact car to meet her would-be assailant wearing a cardigan over a long dress, she looks more like a soccer mom than a hooker. The proposed remake of the movie might be improved if, instead of an ailing mother with a seven-year-old daughter and a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression, they make her an emasculating whore with maybe a few martial arts skills thrown in.
Most egregiously for a thriller, there is precious little suspense, and this applies to the chase sequences of the film’s title as well. Even the film’s composer, as if himself unable to shake off the deadening inertia, supplied these scenes with an uninspired soundtrack of percussion and synthesizer.
Wracking my brains trying to fathom why The Chaser was such a big hit, I came up with several possibilities: an intrinsic disdain for authority that revels in seeing the police force mercilessly skewered; an insatiable appetite for kidnapping and murder stories, particularly when the victims are young and female; or maybe moviegoers are growing weary of sensitive, supportive male role models. There is simply no accounting for (bad) taste. Some people prefer Sousa to Beethoven. Still others enjoy a little mayonnaise with their ramen noodles. And why some choose to spend two hours text messaging in one darkened theater rather than another, god only knows.
It would be remiss at this point not to remind readers that an outstanding thriller did manage to slip through the cracks (or rather, crevices) this year that is everything The Chaser is not: a suspenseful film with vividly drawn characters, striking visuals, excellent editing and a performance by the young actor Ryu Deok-hwan that borders on the marvelous. That movie is Our Town, and it is available on English-friendly DVD.