He kept talking gibberish.
—Detective Gil-woo (JeongIn-gi)
Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee) is exhausted. She’s also sick, laid low by a cold, her face drained and her cough wracking. Her seven-year-old daughter (Kim Yu-jeong) does her best to look after her mother, bringing medicine to her bedside. Mi-jin means to rest and grow strong, but then, even as her child watches and worries, she takes a phone call from her pimp, Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok). “How are you sick in the middle of summer?” he complains. “Are you trying to run away like the others?”
She can’t know what he means, and even Jung-ho is a little fuzzy on where his girls have gone. All he knows is that lately, they’ve been disappearing. He assumes they’ve been bought or stolen by another pimp, that they’re cheating him in some way, which means he resents both the missing prostitutes and his unseen rivals (“I’m the one who’s being ripped off”). An ex-cop who’s fallen on hard times, Jung-ho has become a little too used to bearing such grudges: at the start of The Chaser (Chugyeogja), he stands literally in the rain, griping that a girl he’s just dropped off at an assignment is taking too long. When he has to follow her inside and slap down the john for abusing her, his rage finds a brief outlet. Asked by the john who he is, Jung-ho grumbles, ” I’m her guardian, asshole.”
Jung-ho’s problems are about to get a lot worse. It’s only after he’s sent Mi-jin off to service a client at home that he realizes the phone number matches the one where the last girl disappeared. Now Jung-ho is concerned—not that Mi-jin is working sick, but that she may leave him. He texts her instructions to send him the guy’s address, just in case, adding a cruel note, “You die if you screw up.”
Little does he know. Na Hong-jin’s first feature film, available on IFC Festival Direct, through 7 July, is at once a character study, an indictment of institutional incompetence and pervasive misogyny, and, by the way, a crude and gory thriller. On one level, The Chaser is focused on Jung-ho’s pursuit of the killer, Young-Min Ji (Ha Jung-woo), identified as soon as Mi-jin walks in his door. Young-min is, rather predictably, a lonely, angry, twisted young man whose imprisonment and torture of his latest victim are rendered in discomforting close-ups and his own occasional self-pitying murmurs (the character is based on the real life serial killer Young-cheol Yoo, convicted in 2005 of murdering 21 people, including prostitutes who came to his home). Hauled in to the police station and asked if he’s sold Jung-ho’s girls, Young-min looks confused, then wily. “No,” he murmurs, “I didn’t sell them. I killed them.” As the camera pans the detectives’ faces, pitching from distracted to dumbfounded (the film’s dark comedy recalls that of Oldboy).
Surrounded by cops who mean well but have trouble keeping up, Jung-ho looks close to clever; next to Young-min, he’s almost ethical. As the killer describes his choice of weapons (he uses a hammer and chisel, he says, because “I saw how pigs were killed and did the same”), he remains impassive as the cops become more agitated. When he reveals he’s left Ji-min alive, tied and bloodied in his basement, the game changes again: Jung-ho makes it his mission to find her (actually, he sends his minion Meathead [Ko Bon-woong] door to door in the neighborhood where he thinks he sent her). Horrified by what he sees in Young-min (less a mirror image than an extreme version of his own descent), Jung-ho seeks vengeance as a sort of redemption.
In this he’s not unlike Oldboy‘s Dae-su Oh (or The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards or Dirty Harry, for that matter), assuming a mantle of moral rightness as he is redefined by his pursuit. The quest, of course, provides generic excitement and titillation, punctuated by nasty violence inflicted alternately by pimp and killer. As Jung-ho faces off with Young-min in various locations—the police station, a dark alley, an empty house—the camera angles go skewy and the cuts come fast.
Amid these stylistic flourishes, Jung-efforts are both earnest and a little manic. His face increasingly haggard and his body broken, he derides the PR-minded city administrators, tries to work with the detectives, Eun-shil (Park Hyo-ju) and Gil-woo (Jeong In-gi) (who put aside his history to exploit his expertise, though Eun-shil is regularly disappointed by her male colleagues’ limited perspectives), and looks after Mi-jin’s daughter, whom he finds alone in her apartment. Wise beyond her years but also desperately innocent, the child rides along in his passenger seat and asks difficult questions. When he assures her that her mother is “working,” she shakes her head. “My mom isn’t working, is she?” the girl asks. “Something happened to her.”
Grand Prize winner at the 44th Baeksang Art Awards and winner as well of the Best Film, Director, and Actor prizes at this year’s Daejong Awards, The Chaser is by turns brutal, bizarre, and poignant. The pathologies on display are familiar, perhaps especially, the men’s investments in sexual metaphors and contests. At the same time, the movie resists the cliché that justice might be wrought in a world organized around such conventions. Arrogant and cynical, Jung-ho duly learns some awful lessons—just not quite soon enough.