Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Korean movies are delightfully bleak. If you think that knowing a major character will die in any given Korean film constitutes a spoiler, you clearly have not watched enough of them. Seriously, though, the country seems incredibly pessimistic regardless of whether they're doing romantic comedies (one of the leads will die in the end), action movies (one of the leads will kill another lead), horror movies (the kids will die), or crime movies (everyone will probably die). But this tendency makes their movies pleasantly grim and somber affairs, which, when blended with their stunning cinematography makes South Korea the go to country when you want a beautifully bleak cinematic experience.
The Chaser is no exception to this rule. Kim Yun-seok plays Jung-ho, a former cop turned boorish pimp who has a simple problem: his girls keep turning up missing. He tracks all the missing girls to one phone number, a number he has just dispatched a girl to. Racing after her, he finds a blood-stained man fleeing in a stolen vehicle. The police arrest him, but there is no evidence, and the last prostitute is still missing. With a clock ticking to the man's release, Jung-ho hits the streets trying to find the proof that this timid little man is a brutal serial killer.
It's an interesting set-up, not least because of the main character. As the film progresses, we find ourselves rooting for Jung-ho as his determination leads him from dead-end to dead-end, despite his seedy profession. He seems genuinely concerned for the fate of his girls, but at the same time we can never quite shake the suspicion that he just wants to stop his revenue from drying up. The addition of one of the missing prostitutes' daughter adds more layers to Kim's portrayal, and thankfully the movie lets us draw our own conclusions. It neither idolizes nor condemns Jung-ho, simply portraying him as a relentless force determined to hunt down the evidence he needs. The only other major player in the movie is Ha Jung-woo as Young-min, the killer. Alternately cowardly and weak, or frighteningly violent, he's an easy villain to hate.
This sort of reverse serial killer drama makes for compelling, if deliberately paced, watching. The killer is in jail, and he has confessed, but there is no physical evidence. Most of these movies involve hunting the killer. This one involves finding the victims.
The pacing is slow, but by about a quarter of the way in, you'll be sucked into the twisting mystery of it all and won't care. If there's a downside, it's that the movie's few attempts at action are generally weak. There are two foot chases that occur in an environment that looks exactly the same each time and lacks little real tension. But it all comes together for a disturbingly gory finale that proves once again that the Koreans have no idea what a happy ending looks like. But still, it's a hell of a movie.