Review: The Chaser (추격자)
I saw the Korean movie The Chaser (추격자) with my wife last night.
Before I get into the movie, let me make a few recommendations to Korean learners who want to watch Korean movies. If your Korean is not perfect, you will find some movies very easy to understand, while others will be nearly incomprehensible. For example, Korean costume dramas until the recent trend of making the characters speak slangy modern Korean, were typically very difficult to understand because of the use of arcane modes of speech. I enjoyed Untold Scandal because I knew the story was based on Dangerous Liaisons and it was pretty to look at. At almost no point in that movie did I really have any idea what was going on. The same is true of Forbidden Quest (or, as I like to call it ‘The Korean Nobleman Who Made Pornography’. Typically the movies which are easiest to understand are the ones that take place in the here and now and deal with mundane topics. This is why I highly recommend that Korean learners watch cop movies like Wild Card and Memories of Murder (which is actually more challenging to understand), which tend to be sociological travelogues anyway, and light comedy (parodies can also be very difficult to understand, especially if they are parodying a way of speaking). Oddly, for some reason, I have never had a problem understanding Korean dialects, and some movies where the characters speak in dialect, like My Brother (another tragedy with gangsters and a tough talking cynic, this time in Gyeongsang Province) and Innocent Steps (which features Moon Geun-Yeong as a Korean Chinese girl), have been the easiest for me to understand. I have no idea why this may be, other than perhaps the fact that Seoul tough guys tend to affect a few details from various dialects and the dialects are mostly similar to each other and the differences almost tend to highlight their similarities. Other movies which I personally have found easy to understand and highly recommend for Korean learners are Marathon (also a very good movie with a tough talking cynic) and A Family (which is pretty much a downer but has some laugh out loud scenes in what is otherwise a tragedy with gangsters).
Anyway, all that said, I have never understood a movie the way I understood this one. The action is so straightforward, the speaking so natural, that it was pretty much exactly the kind of Korean I hear on a daily basis. I highly recommend it it your Korean is pretty good but that good.
The plot revolves around ex-cop/pimp and tough talking cynic Eom Jung-ho (김윤석), who is in pursuit of a person who he thinks is stealing his prostitutes. When a call comes in from the same person who took the last one to disappear, he hatches a plan to entrap this whore rustler. He sends Mijin (서영희), a prostitute and mother, out on the job in the hopes of finding out where the rustler operates. What she finds out too late is that Ji Yeong-Min (하정우) hasn’t been selling the girls. He’s a vicious serial killer, and he’s been torturing them to death. He begins to kill Mijin but is interrupted, and kills two more people. Jung-ho fails to find his house, but happens to get into an accident with the killer while he’s disposing of his latest victims’ car. Both wind up getting arrested, and Yeong-Min winds up confessing to the murders. The police have 12 hours during which they can keep him in custody and try to find concrete evidence of his guilt within this time frame. They dismiss the idea that they are searching for a living Mijin, and focus only on finding bodies. This sends Jung-ho off on his own desperate search of the neighborhood where the killer lives to find Mijin.
The arithmetic way to refer to the movie would perhaps be ‘The story of serial killer Yu Yeong-Cheol plus the brutal violence of Saw plus the focus on a dysfunctional police force of The Wire’. In fact I found myself constantly wondering whether there was a direct line of influence from The Wire to The Chaser. Both feature a gritty, kaleidoscopic view of the people that make up the police, from the sleeping beat cops to the harried detectives impressed to do bodyguard duty for politicians to the coddling administrators cowed by regulation to the top brass, more concerned about public image and their own careers than anything else. The analogy carries pretty far. Jung-ho the pimp is McNulty, the idealistic but deeply flawed cop getting tossed around within the system, in Jung-ho’s case so much that he leaves the force entirely and becomes a pimp. His friend Detective Lee (정인기) is Bunk Westmoreland, the similarly tempered but much less ornery detective who attempts to work within a system that is choking him and does his best to protect Jung-ho/McNulty from his own suicidal impulses. The Police Chief (최정우) is Commissioner Burrell, obsessed with public perception, taking that extra moment to straighten his Commissioner’s cap before entering the room. Perhaps a less convincing case could also be made that Detective Lee’s female partner Detective Oh is Kima Greggs and Jung-ho’s sidekick Ojot is one or all of the low level functionaries in the drug game, but I doubt that these correlations have been done consciously. There is one character who definitely doesn’t map onto The Wire: the coddling Team Chief, who gives the killer chocolates and prevents him from being interrogated and, simply put, protects him from the other police.
This is a recurring theme throughout the film. Police incompetence is one thing, and it crops up again and again, as when the police take the killer to the address on his National ID Card, which isn’t even in Seoul, without thinking about the fact that he had only a few hours before abducted his most recent victim in Seoul. The self interested nature of the police and lack of discipline is another thing that frequently becomes a plot point, as in the movie’s most famous scene, a brutal murder that occurs while two policemen sleep in their squad car not far away, their socks off and their feet on the dash in the summer swelter. Jung-ho the pimp is often telling the police what they should do and being ignored, and his detective efforts are the most successful, suggesting the kind of cop he once was and begging the question of why the force would let someone like him go.
At the same time Jung-ho is an amazingly flawed character. We first see him hurling obscenities at his right hand man Ojot, then dispatching girls to johns, then accepting a large cash payout to a john who got violent with one of his girls and not sharing the money with her. Then he bullies a sick Mijin into working, even though we can see she’s very ill. He’s a classic Korean movie staple, the constantly frustrated, cursing, smoking bully. The only thing that endears him to the audience is the fact that his aggrieved complaints about the incompetence and stupidity of the people around him are usually accurate. Jung-ho’s constant frustration at the world around him probably has a lot to do with the fact that the rights to this movie have been bought up around the world, but rather than thinking that this is some sort of revolutionary gritty look at Korean society, I must point out that this character type is one of the most recognizable elements of both Korean movies and Korean society. I know plenty of people who have that same dark and angry view of the world around them, or at least affect it as some sort of mask. I suspect that one of the price of seeing through the hypocrisy and stupidity of Korean life is an amazing amount of self-righteous anger (even if you’re a pimp), just as the price of seeing through America’s hypocrisy and stupidity is a sense of self-satisfying smug self-righteousness. That said, Jung-ho is a particularly successful portrayal that somehow avoids being a cliche.
The movie itself is beautiful. It perfectly captures the feel of Seoul in the rainy season: the halos around the neon signs in the night, the washed out brightness of a cloudy day, it’s all there. Have a look at the trailer to see for yourself.
If that doesn’t make you want to see this movie, nothing I can say will.