Seemingly modeled on the many foot chases that dominate the movie’s action, The Chaser darts this way and that, heading in unexpected directions and then surprisingly popping up somewhere you’d least expect. Narratively, it’s nothing if not nimble.
On the surface a serial-killer thriller, the movie centers on a Korean pimp named Jung-ho (Kim Yun-seok) whose female prostitutes keep disappearing. At best they’ve run away; at worst they’ve been sold into sex slavery. Eventually he suspects there may be a far more awful possibility.
Co-written by director Na Hong-Jin, who makes a shockingly assured feature debut, The Chaser unspools its story with a refreshing disregard for genre convention. Rather than a cat-and-mouse game in the manner of Seven, this evades the usual story beats while still working with familiar elements. And so there is a grimy death chamber (Seven again) and the capture of the killer (an eerily calm Ha Jung-woo), but both are employed in ways you’d least expect. To give more detailed examples would only spoil the inventiveness.
Narratively, it’s nothing if not nimble.
This liveliness does work against the film a bit in terms of tone. For much of its first half, The Chaser could almost be considered a comedy. Kim Yun-seok has a teddy-bear look – tousled hair, round face – and he goes for exasperated laughs at first as a man whose prostitution ring is mostly a series of small-business frustrations. Unseen superiors badger him on the phone demanding higher profits. He has a bumbling underling named Meathead (Koo Bon-woong), who offers a priceless yawn while distributing advertisements on car windshields. His “employees” suspiciously call in sick. All in all, it’s hard out here for a Korean pimp.
Yet then The Chaser cuts to that sick prostitute, Mi-jin (Seo Young-hee), and it turns out that she’s not only pale and sweating from a real fever, but also the single mother of a 7-year-old girl (Kim Yoo-jung). Suddenly harsh reality nudges its way into the film, and the movie never quite finds a convincing way to balance this sensibility with either the comedy or the graphic horror elements that eventually come into play. It’s a film that does just about everything well, yet those things don’t always play well together.
The Chaser does find its tonal footing in the final third, when Jung-ho makes the transition from darkly comic clown to film-noir anti-hero. After earlier forcing Mi-jin to work, despite her illness, Jung-ho begins to fear she may have fallen into the hands of the killer. A former police detective, Jung-ho uses his skills from that job to search for her, and as he becomes more desperate, his motivations have less to do with business and more to do with whatever sense of decency still lies within him. The Chaser ultimately concludes as a heady tale of moral awakening, with Jung-ho coming to the terrible realization that the killer is, in a way, simply a darker version of himself – a hideous variation on the exploitation of women he’s made as his career.