The Chaser (Chugyeogja)

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In Short: One of the best thrillers of the year.

Plot Outline: Joong-ho is a dirty detective turned pimp in financial trouble as several of his girls have recently disappeared without clearing their debts… [From IMDB]

Trivia: A surprise box-office hit in Korea, with a relatively unknown cast and a first-time feature director (Hong-jin Na), this low-budget thriller is currently sitting comfortably at the top of the most seen films of the year in the country. Was quickly snatched up by Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company with The Departed writer William Monahan intended to direct.

The Good: There were several times in this film, especially in the first half, when I felt like standing up and cheering. Not because what was happening on screen was especially cheerful, but because time and time again this film goes against expectations.

Most of us watching a thriller know the beats that are supposed to be struck in the base of our spine by now. A modern thriller will try to wrap itself in convoluted plots to get us surprised, but you can usually figure out who the killer is within the first act and guess the ending within an hour. Watch, for example, The Ruins and guess which characters will live and how the others will die. If the bodycount were higher it’d be a pretty good drinking game.

The currently in state-side release Tell No One (Ne le dis a personne) is one of the films that tries to be both a modern thriller and still surprise its audience. It does this with a very convoluted plot that doesn’t hold up at all to scrutiny, and a few left-field twists that were given basically no hint of earlier. An “intellectual” roller-coaster with nothing to say in the end. I liked the chase scene, though.

The Chaser shares some similarities with Tell No One, with its lost women at the center of its plot and a few chase sequences on foot. But that’s about it for similarity between them. The Chaser is like a characteristic Korean headslap on Tell No One. Where you think the plot will zig, it zags. Where the plot should zag, it zigs. And none of it feels forced or unlikely.

This is because the plot feels organic. Situations grow out of themselves, not because of some great mastermind deducing/constructing the events. The people feel and act like real people, unpredictably and emotionally. Especially the central character Joong-Ho, one of the great pimps in cinema history. DiCaprio in this part would kill. Big credit to the people who wrote this (director Hong-jin Na and Won-Chan Hong, Shinho Lee). It’ll be interesting to see how and how much Monahan adapts the plot.

Saying more of the story might just spoil the experience, honestly. If this is the first you’re hearing of the film, the best way to go into this film is not to watch any trailers and not read any more synopses.

The Bad: Lamentably the film does fall into a specific genre after a while. It tries to climb out, almost makes it, but doesn’t quite. It’s not a bad second half, it’s just that the first hour is like sitting in the backseat of a taxi driven by a crazy Pakistani, while the second hour is like sitting on a bus with a drunk driver. It’s still nerve-wracking, but the second half is just not as unpredictable as the first half.

The Ugly: People sensitive to harsh violence should think twice. Joong-Ho is one of the more despicable guys to have as your main characters in quite a while and it’s to actor Yun-seok Kim’s credit that he’s as fascinating to watch and see in action. The worldview the film displays is very grim and if there were a theme to this it would probably be something along the lines of “people are idiots” or “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Recommended to: Lovers of Asian and Korean film. People who long for good thrillers. Annoying people who sit and declare who will die after only watching the first five minutes (guilty).

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8 responses »

  1. Hadn’t heard of this until you mentioned in another thread, sounds tailor-made for me.

    Any idea who has the rights in the US? A trip to Netflix/Amazon proved worthless.

  2. The IMDb says IFC has US distribution. No release date yet. The IFC website, as usual, yields no clues, at least at first glance.

  3. I saw this a few weeks ago and thought it was superb. The only minor complaint I’d make is that there are a few unlikely coincidences in the story, but they don’t really destract too much overall.
    Well worth watching, one of the best films of the year.

  4. The only minor complaint I’d make is that there are a few unlikely coincidences in the story, but they don’t really destract too much overall.

    I think you have a point, Gareth. In hindsight I can think of at least two plot turns that seem somewhat forced there out of convenience. And the film is not so much a close-masterpiece, as I might have made it sound in my review, but a small gem.

  5. You know, I didn’t notice at first that this review was written in July, 2008. It’s no wonder I forgot about it when I was doing Openings last week.

    Anyway, I went to see it tonight, and you and Rob were right – well worth the time. Like you say, it was able to generate suspense more than most movies of this kind, simply because it didn’t fall into the usual rhythms and wasn’t so formulaic and predictable.

    The worldview the film displays is very grim and if there were a theme to this it would probably be something along the lines of “people are idiots” or “man’s inhumanity to man.”

    Actually, it made me wonder if there’s been some recent big police scandal in Seoul or elsewhere in South Korea. The cops in the film really come across as a bunch of morons, in a way that made me think that the filmmakers were sticking it to them on purpose.

  6. Glad you liked it. Yeah, didn’t feel that long ago.

    The cops in the film really come across as a bunch of morons, in a way that made me think that the filmmakers were sticking it to them on purpose.

    Haven’t seen South Korean cops portrayed much differently in most of their films. I think it’s a common cultural portrayal of their character, much like American hero cops have tended to be occasional rule-breakers for the common good ever since Steve McQueen and Dirty Harry, with some fat captain shouting at them to toe-the-line.

  7. I mostly hated this movie, if only because I hate violence.

    I loved it’s outlook on humanity. I love foreign cinema mostly because it doesn’t take the easy way out. Sometimes…bad guys win. And sometimes…even bad guys who are the good guys are the bad guys who lose.

    The fact that we felt so bad for a pimp is testament to how well the actor sold him. But was his motivation more out of revenge for losing his girls or because he liked that girl? I didn’t think it was that well fleshed-out.

    And the mayor with shit in his face seemed an awfully convenient contrivance. Let him go because it’s bad PR? I didn’t really buy that.

    A lot of the second half I felt was more emotionally rewarding than the first.

  8. I should clarify by saying that I hate violence that isn’t cartoony ’80’s action violence. I hate anything that veers towards the ‘real’.

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