It's a truly rare thing these days to find a quality thriller that gets by purely on tone, pacing, and peril that exists in a cinematic-yet-realistic world. Director Na Hong-jin's The Chaser is precisely such a film. This is a movie that subscribes to the Hitchcockian method of creating tension, setting scenarios that seem simple in practice (discover a killer, find a woman in distress, etc.), creating complex-yet-believable problems that make solving these problems exponentially more difficult, and letting characters organically navigate their way through it all via methods and actions that suit the behaviors and personalities of those characters. Even in its rare over-the-top moments, The Chaser is a remarkably down-to-earth piece of filmmaking, so much so that as the tension and danger ratchets up, I actually found myself on the edge of my seat. That's not hyperbole--I actually almost fell off my couch.
The movie opens with a predicament for Eom Joong-ho ( Kim Yun-seok), a small time pimp who is about as far away from his former career as a cop as can be. Joong-ho's girls have been going missing as of late. At first he suspects they're running away, but as more and more start to vanish, he begins to suspect a bigger problem, specifically that a regular client (who he only knows by his cell phone number) might be kidnapping them and selling them off. The client only agrees to meet the girls in public locations, so in order to find out where he lives, Joong-ho enlists one of his ladies to meet this client and send Joong-ho his name and address. The girl, Mi-jin ( Seo Yeong-hie) is desperately sick, but even more desperate for money, so she can provide for her young daughter. Tragically, she takes the job, with the assurances that Joong-ho will be in contact all the way.
Ha Jung-woo), isn't selling the girls--he's brutally murdering them in his house's washroom, which he has fashioned to look like something straight out of a Saw movie. Mi-jin is trapped, unable to get cell-signal, and brutally attacked by Young-min, but before he can finish the job, a well-timed distraction sends him away from the house, and straight into Joong-ho. After a brief but tense foot chase, Joong-ho captures and "arrests" Young-min, but both end up in handcuffs and at the police station, while Mi-jin is left to slowly die in a place no one knows about.
To give away too much more of what happens would be criminal in itself. The way that Na Hong-jin constructs what's at stake is incredibly crafty in its own unassuming way. We know through occasional establishing shots that Mi-jin is probably still alive, but no one else in the movie has any idea of it besides Young-min. And even when he alludes to it to the police, most are sketchy on the likelihood of that being true. Joong-ho, ever the self-centered business man, still believes he's being ripped off, and only starts to realize how demented Young-min truly is as time begins to wind down. Worse still, the nature of Young-min's arrest only leaves the police 12 hours to keep him in custody. If they can't get more evidence to support the accusations, he goes free. Young-min, by this point, has more or less confessed to being a killer, but his story continuously changes, he refuses to remember where he's buried the bodies, and his motives are elusive, at best.
After a while the movie morphs into a somewhat standardized detective piece, with Joong-ho tear-assing through the city looking for clues to Mi-jin's likely whereabouts while picking up her daughter along the way. I had a bad feeling about how that might go, but the actress who plays Mi-jin's kid, Kim Yoo-jeong, does a solid job evoking the cluelessness, followed by the sorrow, of her situation, and Na manages to mostly avoid using her as a lazy plot device. Of course she wanders off and gets herself into a spot of trouble at one juncture, but it's not labored, nor is it wildly out of place.
To repeat the point, the thing that impressed me most about The Chaser is the deft touch Na shows in creating a thrilling, disturbing, taut storyline that progresses in a way that feels natural and organic. Coincidence is only rarely used to solve anything, and the progression of Joong-ho's investigation, as well as the desperate bureaucracy he runs into with the police along the way, are entirely effective at bringing the tension to a proper boil. Na also has a strong eye for action scenes that treat the characters involved and the surrounding scenery with the utmost respect. There are no desperate car chases here, no explosions, no insane gun battles. You get a pair of incredibly shot, wholly believable foot chases that don't even need parkour style trickery to be enthralling. It's enough to watch two (and in one case, three) men, running through these darkened streets, in pursuit of one another with absolute determination and desperation.
I've stated many times in the past how deeply impressed I am with the films coming out of South Korea as of late, and Na Hong-jin seems like another filmmaker to watch among the likes of Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho. Word is that The Chaser has been optioned for an American remake, but there is a quality about this film that feels like it might be lost in translation as a Hollywood thriller. So my suggestion? Don't wait around for the remake, and by all means, give this one a watch as soon as you possibly can.
Stream if You Like: Dark, taut crime thrillers; Tense foot chases; dead prostitutes.
Stream if You Hate: The bureaucracy of police work; live prostitutes.