Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pimp vs. Serial Killer: The Chaser

It is like a Korean Dirty Harry, except instead of a jaded police detective chafing under the constraints of liberal lawyers and judges, this tale of extracurricular justice follows a pimp who loses all patience with a legal system that coddles violent predators. Featuring one heck of an anti-hero, Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (trailer here) opens today in New York, following an out of competition screening at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival and a run on IFC’s Festival Direct.

Jung-ho made a radical career change. A former police detective, he now pimps out a stable of prostitutes. Business is off though, because his “employees” keep vanishing. He assumes they have either skipped out on their debts or have been kidnapped by a rival outfit. Unfortunately, he will soon come to understand the truth is something far worse.

After browbeating the ailing single mother Ma-jin into meeting a client, Jung-ho realizes the john’s number matches that given before his other women went missing. Suddenly, she is trapped half-dead in serial killer Young-min’s sinister cell-phone-dead-spot home. However, when events force the psycho path to leave his apartment on some unplanned nefarious business, he has the extreme misfortune of hitting Jung-ho’s car. The pimp takes one look at Young-min’s bloody shirt, punches in the fateful cell number, and the chase is on.

Eventually, Jung-ho catches the killer long enough to lay a colossal smack-down on him, but things go downhill fast when the cops get involve. The prosecutors are more interested in protecting Young-min’s civil rights and covering their backs than finding Ma-jin, which of course entails arresting Jung-ho for beating their suspect (though to be fair, he made a pretty thorough job of it). While Young-min toys with the plodding coppers, Jung-ho is forced to do the police work bureaucrats just won’t do.

As one might expect of a film in which the protagonist is a pimp, Chaser is one dark thriller. Na and production designer Lee Min-bog effectively capture the seediness of Korea’s underground sex economy. While the film moves along at a lightning pace, it offers almost no relief from its gritty fatalism. Fans of the vigilante movie genre should be warned Chaser does not provide the sort of payoff they might expect. In short, this is one tough film.

As Jung-ho, Kim Yoon-suk is truly one bad cat. He has plenty of Dirty Harry in him plus a tad bit of Morgan Freeman’s “Fast Black” from Street Smart for extra added edginess. It is a star making turn. In the creepy antagonist role, Ha Jung-woo (recognizable to MoMA Film patrons as the happy-go-lucky Byung-woon in My Dear Enemy) gets under your skin in just about every way imaginable, while Seo Young-hee brings legitimate pathos to the film as Ma-jin. Chaser also gets a memorable assist from Oh Woo-jung in a smaller but pivotal part as Sung-hee, the tough talking prostitute who initially goads Jung-ho into taking action.

Chaser is a slick, street smart crime film, but it presents an unremittingly dark portrayal of humanity. Just the way to ring in the New Year, I suppose. It opens today (12/30) at the IFC Film Center.