★★★ / ★★★★
Min-jin (Yeong-hie Seo), a prostitute, is feeling very ill but her boss, Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim), a former-cop-turned-pimp, insists that she must go to work because he is convinced that his other girls had ran away. Joong-ho is unaware that their most recent customer, Young-min (Jung-woo Ha), is in fact the very same guy who called for the services of the missing girls prior to their disappearances and Min-jin is about to walk into a trap: Young-min has a predilection for bashing a chisel in women’s skulls.
Written by Won-Chan Hong, Shinho Lee, and Hong-jin Na, “Chugyeogja,” also known as “The Chaser,” is an entertaining thriller in every respect but it commands a distinct edge because it also functions as a critique against bureaucracies in the police force and how, while the rules are meant to protect people’s rights, they also end up costing lives.
The villain and the antihero are equally interesting characters and, coupled with an engaging and often unpredictable screenplay, the film holds resonance. I liked the way Young-min is able to talk about his crimes so matter-of-factly, listening to his gruesome acts of violence sounds like someone giving an instruction on how to make a good stew. Ha makes a smart decision in downplaying his character, even during moments when Young-min is bragging about his so-called accomplishments, which is very necessary because the character is all about not attracting too much attention from the public so he may continue to perform his killings in private.
Notice the differences in the way Young-min behaves when he is surrounded by a group of people versus having a one-on-one conversation. There are two different performances. Joong-ho, on the other hand, is quite a lively character with an abrasive sense of humor. I enjoyed the scenes between he and his lowly assistant, Oh-jot (Bon-woong Ko), because the latter almost always receives the short end of the stick. The protagonist’s enthusiasm is also what made him questionable, almost dangerous. When he hopes to accomplish a task, he is willing to go great lengths even if it means disregarding the rules that he knows are there for a reason.
Kim plays his character with such rabid rebellion, at times it makes us wonder whether we should root for him the entire time. The picture does not provide easy answers and I think the point is for us to decide for ourselves if, in this case, the end truly justifies the means.
The chase scenes are first-rate because we get a real sense of geography. It really looks like the chases are taking place in real winding and confusing alleys—various angles of slopes for good measure—found in poor neighborhoods, from the broken glass waiting to be stepped on by someone unwisely walking around without slippers to the awkward black garbage bag waiting to be rummaged by a gang of starving cats. The setting offers natural obstacles for the characters and, in turn, enhances our experience of watching the action unfold.
However, the film, directed by Hong-jin Na, loses bit of power during its final act. The expectation is for Joong-ho and Young-min to have some sort of duel; we want to see it but is it actually necessary? I was not convinced that it needed to happen not only because they are shown in a fight early on but that it also lessens the picture’s message about red tape.