Those familiar with the genre of hardboiled detective fiction know that private detectives are often used in these stories as protagonists. As an outsider with insider knowledge, the private eye occupies a third space halfway between cop and crook. And itís this very liminality that makes the P.I. Ė at least in the world of fiction Ė a seemingly more effective solver of mysteries than full-fledged, by-the-book police officers. But as the genre has changed over the years, some authors have taken it upon themselves to erase the boundary between cop/criminal entirely. Miami P.D. blood spatter analyst-cum-serial killer Dexter Morgan Ė the protagonist of Jeff Lindseyís novels and the subsequent Showtime television series Ė is a prime example of this dramatic shift in the genre.
The 2008 South Korean film The Chaser doesnít go quite so far as the Dexter series, but its protagonist Ė a disgraced cop-turned-pimp named Eom Jung-Ho (Kim Yoon-Seok from Tazza: The High Rollers) is by no means a hero in any traditional sense. After being busted by internal affairs for being ďon the take,Ē Jung-Ho turns to crime to make ends meet Ė he opens an escort service. But even though Jung-Ho is now operating outside the law, the former cop has kept his police contacts and decides to use them whenever the need arises.
The film opens with Jung-Ho in dire financial straits. Business has been bad, as a number of Jung Hoís prostitutes have seemingly ďrun away.Ē In fact, so many girls have gone AWOL that heís forced to call one of his prostitutes on her day off to pick up the slack. Despite being at home with a nasty cold, Mi-Jin (Seo Yeong-Hee) seemingly has no choice but to follow her bossís orders and head into the city to meet the prospective client.
Meanwhile, Jung-Ho makes a shocking discovery: all of the other prostitutes who ran away saw the same client before disappearing. And it just so happens that the man that Mi-Jin is meeting has the exact same cell phone number as the mystery client. Suspecting that the man has been kidnapping and selling his girls, Jung-Ho dusts off his investigative skills and tries to catch up to Mi-Jin, who has already been picked up by the man in question. A chase ensues, and while Jung-Ho eventually gets the upper hand and hauls the bad guy - named Yeong Min (Ha Jeong-Woo) Ė into the police station, he soon discovers that the game has only just begun.
Purported to be inspired by a true story, Na Hong-Jinís feature-length filmmaking debut is impressive. The violence in this gritty, neo-noir thriller is shockingly brutal, as Na Hong-Jin isnít afraid to zero in on Young-Minís gruesome methods. Letís just say a hammer and chisel are involved. Clearly, The Chaser is not a film for the squeamish.
The Chaser hinges on the performances of its two leads, and theyíre more than up to the challenge. Kim Yoon-Seok basically owns the film, giving a performance thatís riveting and unflatteringly realistic; he isnít a good guy, but somewhere inside, thereís a hero struggling to get out. But a hero Ė even a flawed one Ė is only as good as his villain, and Ha Jeong-Woo delivers as well. The filmís cold-blooded antagonist is creepy, menacing, and, perhaps most importantly, wholly believable. In addition to the two leads, little Kim Yoo-Jeong is a scene-stealer as Mi-Jinís little girl, adding a whole new level of danger and vulnerability to the proceedings without wearing out her welcome.
As the plot unfolds, The Chaser goes to some incredibly dark places, putting the audience on its heels at almost every turn. In fact, one is never quite certain just how dark the filmmakers are willing to go, and thatís perhaps one of the highest compliments you can pay a director seeking to craft an edge-of-your-seat thriller. Itís not hard to see why The Chaser was a big hit in South Korea, as itís the very definition of a pulse-pounding suspense film, subverting expectations at numerous intervals. If thereís one glaring problem with the movie, itís that the conclusion isnít remotely as satisfying as what came before. But then again, maybe thatís simply the nature of the beast, as the fun resides solely in the chase. (Calvin McMillin, 2010)