추격자 (The Chaser)

A Bidangil Pictures Production
Distribution: Showbox
Rating: 18 and Over
Genre: Thriller
Running Time: 123 Min
Shooting Time: N/A
Release: 2008/Feb/14

WITH 김윤석 (Kim Yoon-Seok) as Eom Joong-Ho; 하정우 (Ha Jung-Woo) as Ji Young-Min; 서영희 (Seo Young-Hee) as Kim Mi-Jin; 구본웅 (Gu Bon-Woong) as Ojeot; 김유정 (Kim Yoo-Jung) as Eun-Ji; 정인기 (Jung In-Gi) as Detective Lee; 박효주 (Park Hyo-Joo) as Detective Oh; 최정우 (Choi Jung-Woo) as Chief; 

CREW Director 나홍진 (Na Hong-Jin) Executive Producer 김수진 (Kim Soo-Jin) 윤인범 (Yoon In-Beom) | Screenplay 나홍진 (Na Hong-Jin)  | Director of Photography 이성제 (Lee Sung-Je) Lighting 이철오 (Lee Cheol-Oh) Editor 김성민 (Kim Sung-Min) Music 김준석 (Kim Jun-Seok) 최용락 (Choi Yong-Rak) Art Director 이인복 (Lee In-Bok) 이진영 (Lee Jin-Young) Action Choreography 유상섭 (Yoo Sang-Seop) | Assistant Director 김권태 (Kim Kwon-Tae)

BOX OFFICE
KOFIC Nationwide
TOTAL REVENUE: 33,986,959,000 Won
TOTAL ADMISSIONS: 5,046,096
BUDGET: 5,700,000,000 Won

The Chaser
Photo © Bidangil Pictures, Showbox

REVIEW

Like a vulture hovering over its prey with menacing subtlety, the darkly fostered rays of the night often become a creature of their own, enveloping man and his darkest instincts, dreams and fears in a doddering mist of charming ambiguity. Silence becomes noise, single steps become marauding hordes of invisible foes. It's like opening, if for an ever so brief moment, the gates of a parallel world, where instincts replace logic, and it's dark enough not to be embarrassed by one's dreams, inner lights and demons. So elusive and nebulous is the night, so full of flair and passion expertly hidden by the dark. So romantic and fascinating it is, it populates the dreams of those who think at 24 frames per second, or measure their life by its page count. The Murnaus of the world, showing their cinematic teeth to the camera through the Grand Guignol, or Sam Spade and Harry Lime, Oh Dae-Soo and Park Du-Man.

When it comes to great thriller, horror or noir films, the night reigns supreme. And, ironically enough, it's in the pitch black darkness of 2008 Chungmuro that the first sparks of a possible revival could be seen. Whether we're dealing with the passing shock of a falling star, or the opening fireworks of a much more shining future, that is up to karma. What's for sure is that 추격자 (The Chaser) is a raw, brutal fireball thrown at the Great Wall of Korean cinema's new and increasingly unnerving IMF crisis. Can it tear down the whole thing and let the creative fluids flow through once again? That I don't know, but oh mama. If this is the hell we're getting, fire walk with me.

It was about a week after shooting had started, a mere half dozen of the eighty five shooting days in the tank, for what would be a guerrilla-like tour de force. For productions like these, where going overbudget and overschedule is like dancing naked near the enemy frontline, preparation was everything. Nine tenths of the film were shot at night, and we're dealing with the very brief, sticky and ridiculously hot nights of the Korean summer. The crew had to run around the capital to find back alleys and neighborhoods fitting the image of the film (they even ended up shooting in Busan), and setting up lighting and all the various elements in a so densely populated area with so little time didn't allow any leeway for mistakes, or even worse lose oneself in debate. But that particular day, it wasn't the case.

Kim Yoon-Seok's career in some ways reminds of a cross between Choi Min-Shik and Song Kang-Ho. Born a mere four days before the star of 반칙왕 (The Foul King) and 괴물 (The Host), the two even acted together for a while, as part of the same theater group in the mid 90s. Kim had actually started as a stage producer in the late 80s, but crossed over to acting in 1989, after which he became one of Daehak-Ro's most shining veterans. Of course "shining" is just a symbol of appreciation for that amazing generation of theater actors, who eventually ended up making their fortune in the film world. But, back then, theater wasn't exactly a hot potato, and struggling for months for an often ridiculous paycheck was the norm.

Just like Song, Kim started his film career in a rather quiet manner, with a few small roles in films like 범죄의 재구성 (The Big Swindle) and 울랄라 시스터즈 (Oh! Lala Sisters). What brings him closer to Choi Min-Shik, then, is the fact he made a name for himself through TV first, something Song doesn't seem to have much interest in. Choi now avoids TV dramas, with perhaps the most striking indication of his new slant coming from his not answering Jung Ha-Yeon's calls, when he wanted to offer him the lead role in 신돈 (Shin Don), which later was majestically handled by Son Chang-Min. But Choi actually did some of his better and most underrated work on TV, on things like 서울의 달 (The Moon of Seoul) and 그들의 포옹 (Their Embrace).

Similarly, it really took dramas for Kim Yoon-Seok to get noticed, both on a mainstream and critical level. As far as the latter goes, his work on several short dramas from the Dramacity staple showed how great an actor he is, particularly his scary turn in the masterpiece 제주도 푸른밤 (Blue Nights of Jeju Island). And then the mainstream noticed as well, when he took that monstrously fascinating supporting role in 부활 (Rebirth). What happened after that is mostly well known history, from his impressive Agwi in 타짜 (Tazza: The High Rollers) to his surprise casting in a Daily Morning Drama, which showed he doesn't really seem to discriminate much, if the role is good enough (which it indeed was, just like his acting. Too bad about the rest of the show).

Movies are directors and producers' playing field, a place where the writer's voice is only powerful if it coincides with the man sitting on the director's chair. Actors tend to have a lot more freedom in approaching their characters, and there's more space to debate, even while the shooting goes on. Dramas are the exact opposite, with most of the power coming from the writer's pen, particularly when it comes to veteran writers like Kim Su-Hyeon. Very little ad-lib, and especially a limited acting scope due to the medium's shortcomings, but also a great training ground for what could seem like everyday, pedestrian reaction acting. Adding a third dimension to Kim's acting was his background in theater, where ensemble acting, and using your whole body to convey emotions move a performance, so he had all ingredients to become a chameleon-like actor. The problem, then, is that along with it you develop a sort of stubbornness about acting. Positive all right, but not when there's forty people waiting with camera in hand, for what might be the only twenty minutes left before it starts raining and you have to wrap everything up.

Oh yes, Kim Yoon-Seok and director Na Hong-Jin eventually had a little diatribe. How "little" it was, only those who witnessed it can say, but it was serious enough to stop shooting for a while. It's about one of the first few scenes in the film: Jung-Ho (Kim) keeps calling Mi-Jin (Seo Young-Hee) on the phone, right next to her car, but she doesn't pick up. Kim wanted the character to act as if someone was observing him, while the director thought showing Jung-Ho's state of mind through small and detailed gestures would have better conveyed that feeling. They obviously didn't want to make a mess in front of the entire crew, so the two headed for a back alley to talk in private. The result? Guess what. Screaming. Given the atmosphere, they just had to wrap up. Picture the morning after, quite early. Director Na was more or less dressed like how Ha Jung-Woo's character approaches Mi-Jin inside the bathroom, undergarments the only article of clothing. The phone rang emphatically. It was Kim Yoon-Seok.

What he told him, as Na pointed out on several interviews, was so thrilling it almost moved him to tears.

"You were right last evening. I thought about it all night, and I finally realized. I won't yield in the future myself if I disagree, but you should never do that either. Never lose no matter what happens, because the moment you yield, our film yields along with you."

That point alone, more than the torrents of praise which inundated the Korean film world after the film was released, explains what set this film on fire. In a way, it's that unyielding spirit shown by three people in particular which started the little legend The Chaser has become. Of course dozens, over a hundred people including the entire, brilliant cast is responsible for this half miracle, but if one needed to single out three factors making this a success, Kim Yoon-Seok, Kim Soo-Jin and Na Hong-Jin would instantly come to mind. Why The Chaser was so well received in Korea, especially by industry insiders, doesn't merely deal with the film's quality. This, in fact, represents the return of real film people making films the way they used to back before the boom's bubble burst.

Not CEO types with M&As, accountants and lawyers from venture companies or entertainment conglomerates throwing some stars and a committee script on the screen hoping it would stick and bring them big bucks, but the sweat, tears and (sometimes fake, at times even real) blood of people who love what they're doing, and just hope they'll make enough money out of this to continue doing so. The Chaser is Chungmuro unplugged, without the Korean Wave-influenced chicanery, the flag-waving sensory overload and "if we don't sell 10 million tickets you're all dead" ominous vibes that permeated way too many recent projects.

Producer Kim Soo-Jin of Bidangil Pictures went around with this film's script for a year, trying to convince most of the major investors that it was worth making, but the answer was always no. The reason? 1) it was a film about a pimp and a serial killer with no stars, even though box office has shown more than once that it's not the stars who bring in the big money nowadays; 2) it was too dark and meaty, something investors try to avoid at all costs these days. Even if something like 고死 (Death Bell) gets completely trashed by critics, making low-key project films at low-medium cost, hitting the break even point and possibly even attracting some foreign buyers (extreme still sells, I guess) still looks a lot more risk-free than banking on a really good film made by people who know what they're doing. But Kim Soo-Jin is not your average producer.

Other than The Chaser, all Kim's Bidangil Pictures has produced so far was the lovely satirical sageuk 음란서생 (Forbidden Quest) from 2006, but her dramatic rise up the ranks and twenty year long career in the business tell a much bigger story. She entered the business in the late 80s, and with the few million won she earned from 낙타는 따로 울지 않는다 (Camels Don't Cry) went to Paris, fell in love with Leos Carax's Les Amants du Pont-Neuf, and decided to screen it in Korea. She did make good money, over a billion won over its theatrical release; but in the old system, with regional distribution ruling the roost, all that money ended up in the hands of slimy local distributors, who conned her out of her cut. Between those early nineties and the beginning of Chungmuro's boom, Kim Soo-Jin worked in a couple of Jang Sun-Woo films, notably 꽃잎 (A Petal), and fought hard to bring European art house films to Korea, but almost ten years in the business didn't give much in return, unless you consider debts, tears and fatigue a worthy payback. She just packed her bags and moved to the US for a long six years, where she started working for the AFI and later for Warner Bros. Worldwide. It's all those vicissitudes which probably made her a marathon runner, one of those fighters who never give up.

Perhaps out of luck, Kim met an old acquaintance of hers, that Kim Seon-Yong who just started Vantage Holdings, a new investment company. He surprisingly accepted to invest in the film, when everyone including big names didn't want anything to do with it. She asked for 4.2 billion, but after continuous negotiations, the final budget was agreed for 3.15 billion, not exactly a large canvas to paint with, and the ominous suspicion they'd eventually go over it looming in the corner (they did go over, but just by 600 million, as without the 2 billion for marketing the film cost a mere 3.75). What Kim also did was holding back director Na a little, perhaps a smart move considering what he planned to do. It wasn't stylistic censorship, but more twenty years of experience telling her your protagonist hitting his foe in the climactic finale with someone's severed head would instantly turn something that needs to make money into cult material. And Jang Joon-Hwan knows all too well how cult material gets treated.

What Kim helped director Na with was letting the overall message come through in a more striking way, substituting a lot of the gore Na wanted on the screen with realism, and that "social flavor" which makes the film feel a lot more like an unplugged, pissed off noir that has no time for embellishment and genre tropes, more than simple cat and mouse thriller. The script went through thirty revisions, many of which helped refine what was an already very strong starting point. Whether Na wanted that core subject to tower over everything else, or to be an added flavor to all the gore and raw power of his first oeuvre, is something only he and producer Kim can answer. But the fact it echoes so strongly from every corner and angle of the film shows how productive the endless revisions and changes this creature went through were.

You could think that simple core subject might be the chase itself, a sort of laid-bare version of 인정사정 볼 것 없다 (Nowhere to Hide) sans all that visual orgasm. But the bigger theme enveloping the film is angst directed at the system, making chase, chaser and chased assume different colors, or better shades of gray. The idea of the serial killer reminds of the infamous Yoo Young-Cheol, a sort of Korean Hannibal Lecter turned into reality, after he killed over 20 people between call girls and wealthy old men in the years between 2003 and 2004, admittedly mutilating and eating parts of his victims before he was arrested and condemned to death.

But the idea of catching the serial killer is not really the point, just like catching the culprit in 살인의 추억 (Memories of Murder) wasn't. The idea of "chasing" that something reminds of people becoming beasts inside a jungle that only permits them that kind of reaction. They're chasing whatever is left that belongs to them, that explains their existence, that puts a certain meaning on whatever they're going to do tomorrow and the day after. And, when push comes to shove, morality increasingly flies out of the window, or gets buried in the sand. That, the moral ambiguity the films oozes to make its point, is the strongest element at play in The Chaser.

If what moves Young-Min (Ha Jung-Woo) to perpetrate those brutal murders is filling a certain void (and I'll stop there with spoilers) only such behavior can fulfill, what Jung-Ho does is not really a "bad guy really has a heart of gold deep down, so he needs to find the damsel in the distress, to start a better tomorrow as a model citizen" type of melodramatic twist. The guy begins the dances with a devilish grin, followed by a "if I catch you, you're dead, you fucking slut," what do you think could move his chase? Someone is stealing "food from his table," the police can't do squat about it because of the system, and as the blood starts covering the streets, there's also liters of sticky, itchy responsibility slowly drowning him. It's a sort of moral symmetry, an equally ambiguous pairing where you can only differentiate between dark and darker. Sure, Young-Min nails prostitutes in the head with a hammer, and Jung-Ho is just a former detective who makes ends meet selling lust. But, sure enough, the deeper the jungle gets, the more the two start resembling each other, until that final, insanely powerful confrontation.

The film ably goes around the problem of moral ambiguity (if that's a problem) by giving a soul to everyone, including detectives. The authorities are refreshingly real, swearing up a storm when the system forces them out of bed, complete with bad hair, to deal with the repercussion of their own job; or inside a van, at night, staring at the mayor of Seoul while an over-excited citizen throws shit all over his face (I bet that former Seoul mayor now living under the blue-tiled roofs of that big house enjoys the satire), instead of having the leeway to worry about real criminals roaming the streets at night. It points fingers at an establishment which maximizes profits and the art of saving face on the big stage, only throwing out the morality plays when they can make the big headlines. Even the killer himself becomes a victim of this arena of lies, of democracy that only works on paper, and rules that only benefit those who have enough cash to handle whatever the law think today's truth is. That is the major reason this film sold five million tickets despite being as far from the mainstream as possible. It speaks about what people are feeling but can't say, and throws that anger against the system on the screen with brutal honesty.

Only envisioning it inside some limited genre paradigm, wondering why the former darling of the short film circuit, director Na doesn't bother much explaining why Jung-Ho quit his job as detective, what moved Mi-Jin to choose that line of work, or really what created the kind of monster Young-Min has become will make this seem like a mixed bag, even a misfire. But stop focusing on genre tropes, on narrative conventions, and those details will start creeping up in the background, sometimes just oozing from the walls, becoming a smell you can feel, painting that city of darkness with gray colored shadows. The message of this film becomes a character of its own, attacking the viewers with all those primal instincts, from anger to greed, stress, that suffocating brand of madness mixed with sorrow that hits when people are pushed to become virtual gladiators in an arena populated by the smirking vestiges of what is in all essence still a glorified oligarchy.

The Chaser puts on the screen the frustration and fighting spirit, the energy and sorrow which permeates the Korea of these days. It does so in an incredibly dark, almost sadistically realistic way, removed from fancy and stylish embellishments. The entire cast, from the monumental performance by Kim Yoon-Seok to that increasingly scary Ha Jung-Woo (when he went, sottovoce, half laughing and barely uttering "I didn't sell them, I killed them," I just wanted to get up and hug the screen. How insanely talented is this guy?), from the sad eyes of Seo Young-Hee (let's just cut to the chase: perfect casting) to young little Kim Yoo-Jung.

It's not perfect, as it shows all the little flaws (nothing major, it's mostly small details which often have to do with personal preference, such as the bits about Young-Min's family feeling unnecessary) a debut cannot help but suffer from, but for a first time director to achieve something so strong and relentless in delivering its message on his first outing is close to a miracle, and a pretty big reason why Na has become one of the hottest names in the industry right from the beginning. In a period when most Korean films are busy chasing viewers around with preposterous ideas of what makes for proper filmmaking, Na Hong-Jin let the viewers chase him, chase that charisma which oozes from the film, the enthusiasm and realism, that feeling that you're experiencing something special, the meaningful message it throws at the viewer. That energy which Chungmuro missed for so long, and finally made its long awaited comeback in The Chaser. It's just fire, folks......

Originally Published on Twitch - 2008/08/23

ACTING GRADES

98 하정우 (Ha Jung-Woo)
92 김윤석 (Kim Yoon-Seok)
78 김유정 (Kim Yoo-Jung)
75 정인기 (Jung In-Gi)
73 서영희 (Seo Young-Hee)
72 박효주 (Park Hyo-Joo)
72 최정우 (Choi Jung-Woo)
65 구본웅 (Gu Bon-Woong)

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