A grim Korean police thriller, “The Chaser” is a brutal film. Or maybe it’s just that American audiences have forgotten what the mechanisms of good suspense feel like. Tension and terror in the days of Hitchcock were crafted to give a sense of the possible, while today, thrills seem dependent on attractive vampires, paranormal activities or the impending doom of mankind. But “The Chaser,” needn’t resort to this; despite being director Hong-jin Na’s debut feature, he masters old techniques of the sort where horror comes from horrifying acts — rather than filmic spectacles — of violence.
And the violence is graphic, the blood looks real and the screaming does, in fact, ring of desperation. Young-min (Jung-woo Ha) is the killer, and he kills beautiful women with a hammer and chisel. But lately, his victims happen to all be working for ex-cop-turned-pimp Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim), who out of seeming financial concern starts to investigate their disappearance. The last girl to go missing, Mi-jin (Yeong-hie Seo), of course, has a deplorably cute little kid at home. Strangely enough, telling you all of this doesn’t warrant a spoiler alert: in a refreshing structural shift for the genre, we know who the killer is in the first 15 minutes of the film, and, for the majority of the time, this psychopath remains stoically, even agreeably, under arrest. The film becomes a dark and sometimes deeply humorous exercise in dramatic irony. The audience knows everything, and must sit in tense agony for anti-hero Joong-ho, the realistically inept police force, the girl bleeding to death and the media to stumble across the evidence.
While the acting is excellent all around, I found the supporting cast most intriguing. The characters you don’t get to know, like the gorgeous female investigator working in the police office, or the young lackey doing bitch-work for good results and no appreciation — well, they feel like real people, just ones you don’t get to know, rather than plot devices or stock roles. Even the little girl surpasses her role as redemption-potential, adding a child’s muted emotional distress to her standard sass. Yes, there are times when the style drifts from gorgeously dark cinematography to the verge of questionable sentimentality. The slow motion shots of Joong-ho struggling against cops to get to the crime scene, or the conventional flashbacks of Mi-jin in a golden state of happiness risk this — but even these are tempered by a rough cynicism, one almost disbelieving of its own futility. You’re never quite sure about the personal whys: the pimp doesn’t love the prostitute, yet finding her has become an intense but sincere personal obsession, not so unlike love. And the cops, well, they’re the typical mediocre bunch of men under squabbling management with a healthy dose of corruption and an impressively unabashed disregard for procedure. But they are working under pressure: you see, some wacko with a weak bladder threw crap at the mayor of Seoul — literally — and the police chief needs a positive media-spectacle murder case to save face and to save his job. And yet, no, it never feels like satire — which is the scary part.
The ultimate terror of this film is in realizing that the impotent police, the missed opportunities, the deadly mistakes — they’re not elements of fiction, but of social reality — ones coated over by too many episodes of “CSI,” where every pretty victim gets a fully-funded team of hotshot idealists with top DNA tech and databases to the rescue. “The Chaser” brings crime, and justice, back to the banal and the uncertain — back to the streets. Much has been made of the chase sequences because they show — *gasp* — two guys chasing each other the old-fashioned way, without helicopters or Mini Coopers, but on foot and out of breath. Audiences tired with flashy filmmaking will welcome this sobering Asian import.