THE CHASER (2008) : H.-J. Na : 6/10

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It normally takes more than a year – sometimes two – for East Asian hits to pop up in British cinemas, so how encouraging to see The Chaser in our multiplexes barely six months after its domestic release in South Korea. The cat-and-mouse serial-killer thriller was an instant "runaway" success at home, and almost immediately snapped up for a Hollywood remake by writer William Monahan – previously responsible for turning Hong Kong cop-drama Infernal Affairs into Martin Scorsese's Oscar-laden The Departed. This deal garnered a fair deal of publicity in the trade-press – which presumably explains the rapid intervention of UK distributor Metrodome.
   The Departed's Leonardo DiCaprio has been heavily linked with the planned American Chaser, though it's not yet clear which role he'll play. Looks-wise, he's much more "mouse" than "cat" – the killer, Young-min (HA Jung-woo) is a tall, fresh-faced, unassuming sort in his late twenties – though such an unsympathetic and vicious slayer would seem an implausibly audacious choice for DiCaprio. Young-min's prostitute-slaying exploits are closely modelled on the real-life case of YOO Young-cheol, whose 21-victim spree in 2003-4 sparked a national debate about the death penalty – which is still on the statute-books, but very seldom used these days (Yoo was sentenced to execution in 2005, but this has not yet been carried out.)
   His "chaser" is a world-weary, hard-bitten cop-turned-pimp in his forties, Joong-ho (KIM Yun-seok) – think Anthony LaPaglia, possibly Russell Crowe. Joong-ho has been annoyed by the "disappearance" of several of his "working-girls" – but reckons that they've either run away from his seedy clutches, or else been "bought" by one of his sex-trade rivals. By the time the penny drops and Joong-ho realises what's been going on, he's already dispatched Mi-jin (SEO Yeong-hie) to Young-min's house – sparking a desperate search to save his employee's life. In this quest he's hindered at almost every turn by his former colleagues in the police, even when Young-min ends up in their custody and breezily admits his guilt.
   As in BONG Joon-ho's Memories of Murder (2003), The Chaser is largely an indictment – serious but sardonic – of the authorities' inefficiency and incompetence. It largely unfolds over a single night in the Mapo district of Seoul, where the cops are primarily occupied with an assault on the city's mayor – he gets faeces thrown into his face by a deranged protestor during a visit to a market. Their inaction effectively forces Joong-ho back into his old line of work: he deploys considerable amounts of blood, sweat and shoe-leather as he scurries around a particularly hilly section of town in search of the hapless Mi-jin – who we know is alive but injured in Young-min's squalid basement (which looks like a dank set from one of the Saw movies).
   Further impeding Joong-ho's progress, but sharpening his resolve, is the presence of Mi-jin's 8-year-old daughter (KIM Yu-jeong, very good), whom he very reluctantly takes under his wing – their relationship is presented with a directness and unsentimentality which is typical of the movie's tendency to subvert expectations. Many viewers will likewise be jarred by the final reel – perhaps even to the extent of being dissatisfied by the script's somewhat cruelly tragic convolutions. More troubling, however, is a late-in-the-day reliance on  wild coincidence that sits oddly in a picture that's previously been rather more realistic than most serial-killer affairs.
   Another negative is that we never quite get to the bottom of Young-min's motivations – despite several hints involving Christian iconography, and a tense scene in which a rather self-satisfied psychologist (ideal role for Brian Cox in the remake) interviews the psychopath in a police-station. This nebulousness is unfortunate, given the fact that director Na – who co-wrote the script with HONG Won-chan and LEE Shin-ho – allows his movie to run beyond the two-hour mark. This is a common failing among Korean directors, it would seem, though not a universal one : SHIN Terra's Black House (which premiered in June last year, but has, disappointingly, so far failed to snag UK distribution) clocks in at a lean 104 minutes – covering quite similar terrain to Na's meandering effort.
   There's certainly room for some tightening up here and there by The Chaser's editor KIM Sung-min (also responsible for Memories of Murder as well as Bong's other hit The Host), and the pacing is by no means as frenetic as the movie's title – or the desperate, race-against-time nature of Joong-ho's pursuit – would seem to suggest. It's all a bit stoppy-starty, though this is perhaps justifiable as the movie is essentially about the obstacles to Joong-ho's chase rather than the actual chase itself – many of them quite Hitchcockian in their dark irony, as many of the cops have an evident disdain and mistrust for their former colleague who has now gone over to the other side. His violent methods (he gives Young-min a battering whenever he gets the chance) also mark him out as a relic from bygone days, as the police now find themselves under much more public scrutiny than before – hence the panic over the PR-disaster involving their protection of the mayor.
   But whatever the disgressions and convolutions of his screenplay, Na does a very solid and stylishly professional job, especially considering it's his very first big-screen credit – he evokes and maintains a definite sense of place and atmosphere, with fine contributions on the cinematography (LEE Sung-je) and score (KIM Jun-seok, CHOI Yong-rock) fronts. Crucially, he manages to maintain an effective balance between the darker aspects of what is often a grisly, tense affair, and the leavening humour which can be a slightly incongruous element in current Korean nerve-janglers.

Neil Young
26/27.Sep.08

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Chugyeogja
South Korea
125m (BBFC timing)

director : Na Hong-jin (debut)
editor : Kim Sun-min (The Host, Memories of Murder, Into the Mirror, etc)

seen 25.Sep.08 Manchester (Odeon cinema [Printworks] :  £6.00)