Na Hong-jin’s incredibly assured feature debut is the best Korean crime movie since Memories of Murder. Upon release, The Chaser helped bring Korea’s domestic box office out of a half-year slump and for the first time since the arrival of Choi Dong-hoon (The Big Swindle) and Jang Jun-hwan (Save the Green Planet) announced a new genre auteur worth following.
From the first few opening moments it’s clear we’re in good hands. Aided by some wonderfully muted low-light photography and a fabulous sparse music track, Na builds tension economically and seductively as he takes us on a short, quite voyeuristic, journey from a place of security in a populated night area to the murky suburban back streets where nobody else seems to be watching. Soon after the identity of a serial killer is laid bare, a woman is positioned to be rescued and a suspenseful plot is set to unwind.
Yet, this thought-provoking and actually quite confronting picture is less conventional than its opening half or so suggests. It becomes apparent that Na is less concerned with depicting the process of deduction, the incompetence of the investigation team or the difficulty of living as a decent but socially outcast person, than he is with showing how horrendous events can at least serve as a new beginning to help repair a broken, frail, almost hopeless identity. Not all audiences will be willing to ride along with the character-focused narrative trajectory, especially when that character is at first an arrogant, unsympathetic bozo. And when there’s another character perhaps more deserving of our empathy. But there are rewards in doing so. Na almost crosses an imaginary line between the tolerable and intolerable (just how much smugness from a murderous psychopath can be stomached!?), but it’s Na’s capacity to flirt dangerously cross to this line without stooping to contrived dim-wittedly high-concept garbage like Hostel that entices us to raise questions and react to the conflicting sense of loss/renewal felt at the climax.
Intense but gripping stuff that’s happily without any significant plot ‘holes’ and only maybe one or two mildly annoying “why doesn’t s/he – ?” moments, here’s finally another excellent dark crime picture from Korea to give us some substance and coherence to complement some of the cornier ‘Asian extremism’ being found elsewhere. But, yeah, even here the bad guy does carry a hammer.