The Chaser (Chugeogja, 2008)

Director: Na Hong-jin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A South Korean film that’s been getting a fair amount of good press and audience reaction is The Chaser. It is described by most as a thriller in which former police detective turned pimp Eom Joong-ho (Kim Yun-seok), after having several of his girls go missing, tries to track down one of them, Kim Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie), only to find himself in the midst of a serial killer investigation. Like many South Korean films that have murder as one of their prominent ingredients, The Chaser is graphically violent. The serial killer, Jee Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), likes to bash heads in, especially those of prostitutes, who make easy targets. He prefers to drive a chisel through their brains, but he’ll make do with a hammer, a shovel, or a vase when an unexpected need (e.g., snooping neighbors) arises, as it does many times in this film. Joong-ho likes to kick the shit out of people to get the information he needs, and he’s always very impatient for an answer. So far, we’re in Dirty Harry country.

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The features that I believe make this film stand out to audiences and critics alike is the extreme concentration on Eom’s desperate race to find Mi-jin, which builds suspense even as it documents the reawakening of a conscience in a pretty rotten man. As they say, scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disillusioned idealist underneath. Even as we start to understand Eom, the killer remains a cipher. Why does he kill? We don’t really know, and that irrationality tickles our fear and offers a welcome level of uncertainty in a genre that seeks to reassure with simplistic psychological profiles and explanations; indeed, this film makes fun of a psychologist who tries to do just that. The film also displays that sideways, absurdist humor for which South Korean filmmakers are justly lauded, offering an ineffectual police force to which Eom hand-delivers the killer that hatches some wacky ways to try to find evidence to hold him before he must be released. The film also displays an ironic contempt for technology, given that the country is both a leader in electronics manufacturing and has a nuclear threat just north of the border. There isn’t a single gun in the entire film, and cellphones, though plentiful and a device Eom believes will help him find Jee and Mi-jin, are ineffective. Scenes on the narrow, steep streets of Seoul provide a visually interesting and noirish atmosphere that suits the film beautifully.

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Nonetheless, none of these qualities were able to cut through the intense loathing this film generated in me. The Chaser trafficks in femicide in a particular grotesque way—to redeem Eom. He was selling women’s bodies and originally thought someone was stealing his “property” to sell into a sex slave ring. That was his motivation to find Jee. Frankly, I’m not the least bit impressed with his slowly dawning guilt, blaming himself for forcing Mi-jin to service Jee when she wanted to stay home to nurse a bad cold. While I won’t deny that people can acknowledge the wrong they do and change, Na’s willingness to indulge his audience’s more prurient appetites and the abuse of a woman to allow Eom to find his soft spot are cheap and exploitative.

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In case we can’t see how thick Eom is, the script bludgeons him with pathos and idiocy to ensure he changes. It lays the guilt on even thicker by giving Mi-jin a beautiful 7-year-old daughter Eom discovers when he breaks Mi-jin’s door down and whom he drags around Seoul with him and eventually has to rush to the hospital after she comes to ill in a dark alley when nobody is minding her. The film floors the pedal on Eom’s guilt when he retrieves a message Mi-jin was forced to leave in voicemail saying she’s afraid of continuing life as a prostitute because he was too busy hoofing it to where he finally figures out Jee lives to answer his cellphone. This, of course, exposes the idiot plot whereby he and the police have been looking all over the district, even looking for bodies on a nearby mountainside, even though they found Mi-jin’s car in roughly the same location where another of Eom’s missing prostitutes had parked her car and Eom has the killer’s house keys.

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Women have been raped, tortured, and murdered for our entertainment with great regularity—and generally without placing these atrocities in a context that respects women—for as long as there have been serial killer movies. This convention is so well accepted that the reviews of The Chaser I’ve read (though, I’m assured, not all) don’t even comment on the femicide, preferring to concentrate on how the film comments on politics, institutions, and Eom’s character development. I noted a similar lack of critical comment about femicide in my recent review of Backyard (2009), even though that was the whole point of the movie.

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In the winter 2009 issue of Cineaste, Christopher Sharret asserts in his article “The Problem of Saw: ‘Torture Porn’ and the Conservatism of Contemporary Horror Films,” that filmic serial killers seek to teach their victims a lesson in old-fashioned values and decency, with allusion to the government-sanctioned torture of terrorists out to destroy America and its wholesome values of Mom, apple pie, liberty, and justice for all. It’s not a far leap to suggest a similar message in other serial killer movies, including The Chaser, only the lesson not only encompasses sexual and social conservatism (note that when Jee decides to move on after apparently eluding prosecution, he dresses like a businessman) but also continues the fictive efforts to put women back in the place they started to abandon with the dawning of second-wave feminism in the 1970s. I think it’s very telling as our culture wars continue that this film has already been picked up for a Hollywood remake starring Leo DiCaprio as the detective/pimp antihero.

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If there can be a line in the sand when it comes to films, I think I’m finally ready to draw it. Femicide should not be so normalized among film and TV producers that it goes largely unremarked upon. I earnestly ask my fellow film reviewers and audiences to stop ignoring this disturbingly ordinary plot device and bring outrage back into our collective consciousness in written reviews and other public forums. If you’re willing to do it for Native Americans, African Americans, and other put-upon people, it behooves you not to give these kinds of films a pass no matter how much they engage you (see Cinema Styles on Pixar for more).

  • Greg F spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:08 am

    I haven’t seen this and really don’t want to. Concerning the Cineaste article you mention, which I haven’t read, I have noticed a trend in making the killer judgmental but that goes back a long way before Bush/Cheney. In fact, the most famous judging killer ever was Kevin Spacey in SE7EN (why do I humor that movie by spelling the title like that?) and that was during the Clinton years. I think it started with Leopold and Loeb, and then the movies ROPE and COMPULSION made the idea of the aloof judgmental killer popular. I’d have to read the Cineaste piece but from a historical vantage point it seems to easy to pigeonhole the trend (which isn’t recent) into conservatism, especially since the original tradition (Leopold and Loeb) started in the hallowed liberal walls of cultural and intellectual superiority.
    Femicide on the other hand has been around even longer of course and is, as you say, readily accepted without the batting of an eyelash. In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS the sympathetic female character is Clarise, not the Senator’s daughter being held in a pit at the bottom of a dank basement. The victims are there to titillate the viewer’s voyeurism, to be able to witness torture or death without feeling connected to it. In HOSTEL II one character is torturously cut up while hanging upside down for the sole purpose of providing a bloodbath for the paying female below who appears to reach climax as the victim’s throat is slit. This femicide can be overlooked by the viewer for several reasons: 1, the torturer is a woman. 2, the victim is barely introduced before becoming a human blood shower and 3, it’s filmed erotically. And finally, visually, it’s rather stunning with its lighting and angles, the blood on the sicle and so forth. And so a character is horrifyingly murdered and yet, we feel nothing.
    Another nauseating trend (well, maybe not a trend as it’s been occurring in movies since the beginning) is glamourizing prostitution. From Donna Reed to Julia Roberts, Hollywood loves portraying the hooker with the heart of gold.
    Finally, I have always had a problem with rape scenes in movies. I’m never quite sure if they’re there because the director thinks it’s indispensible to understanding the character or if they just want to show a rape. In THE ACCUSED, I could and would have accepted the arc of Jodie Foster’s character quite easily and readily without being shown the long drawn out rape. It’s like they were saying the only way we can prove she didn’t have it coming is to show you. I think the point of such stories is that we don’t have to be shown to know the woman didn’t “have it coming.” We should know that from our own conscience and mercy and intellects. The focus of the movie should be her struggle to get close-minded people to understand that WITHOUT SHOWING IT. It’s about her struggle, not about us getting to see the rape.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:20 am

    The Cineaste article is rather emotional and certainly debatable – I have my issues with it, too – and it did mention Seven as the beginning. But don’t forget that the “Bush era” really is the Reagan-Bush-Bush era. The neocons were hellbent on wheels to force Clinton out, and they tried to use his questionable sexual morals to do it.
    The gang rape in The Accused did, I think, go over the top. We got the same effect from Sophia Loren’s reaction after the fact in Two Women. On the other hand, as a rape victim myself, I kind of wanted it shoved in everyone’s face how long, tortuous, and demeaning it is to be raped. Sometimes I think a little graphic horror can be instructive, or may that’s the former driver’s ed student in me saying we should all watch Last Prom.

  • Greg F spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:35 am

    Furthering my thoughts on rape scenes, the Francois Truffaut statement about war movies come to mind. The one where he says it’s impossible to make an anti-war film because no matter how disgusting or vile you make it look there will always be a level of excitement to it and the adrenalin will be rushing.
    No matter how skillfully filmed, no rape scene will ever compare to the actual experience of being raped and will play into the repulsion of those normally repulsed and the eroticism of those normally aroused by such things. And not just a rapist but perhaps just a man who likes the idea of being “rough” with a woman and will find the scene enticing because he knows it isn’t real. So I question if they should even be there if there’s no way to effectively convey the horrifying event itself.

  • Greg F spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:38 am

    Also, if I recall correctly, some of the rape scene, if not a majority of it, in THE ACCUSED is filmed in slow motion. That kind of stylization removes the focus from the immediacy of the brutality and makes it dreamlike, and slightly erotic, no?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:41 am

    We’re treading on some tricky ground, Greg. Are we advocating censorship? You know, I’m not as uncomfortable with the notion as maybe I ought to be. I used to believe that suppressing a thought or feeling makes it more dangerous. I still kind of feel that way, but what has the unbridled depiction of violence gotten us? A kinder, gentler world? If you teach a child not to like dogs, they’ll grow up not liking dogs; it’s not that complicated.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:44 am

    And yes, you’re right about the slo-mo. The Chaser makes substantial use of it, particularly in the scene from which I took that screencap of the bloody hammer. Every time I think maybe I’m being too hard on this film, I think about that scene, and wonder if I’m being played. And I end up thinking I am.

  • Greg F spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 10:55 am

    But I don’t think asking, “Is it necessary?” is the same as saying, “You can’t show that!” Of course, I would advocate any filmmaker showing the horrors of rape, war, terrorism, torture, etc however they see fit. And if I don’t want to watch it I don’t have to.
    As for slo-mo, movies are essentially dishonest. They stylize the world for the sake of their art or commercial viability. Whenever a filmmaker uses slo-mo during a death scene in battle it romanticizes it. Either we’re watching the hero die in slo-mo so we can all collectively get lumps in our throats or we’re watching the bad guy die and we can feel satisfaction. But simply watching a person die and drop in real time often seems too real and thus, less effective. The filmmaker doesn’t want it too real. The filmmaker wants it to effective and stylization is the way to achieve that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 11:02 am

    A filmmaker will always think that the choices he or she makes are necessary – whether for artistic or commercial reasons. Sex sells, and therefore a producer will think it necessary. Does it matter that shoving beautiful actresses into roles as prostitutes glamorizes a pretty lousy life? I don’t know too many girls who didn’t at least fantasize about being a prostitute when we were teens. Do you think we’d have done that if we hadn’t have seen Shirley MacLaine or Julia Roberts role modeling the fact that prostitutes find true love?

  • Greg F spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 11:20 am

    And Shirley MacLaine did it several times! Even THE APARTMENT could be included along with IRMA LA DOUCE or SWEET CHARITY. Sure, she only has one client in that, and he’s called her boyfriend, and she’s not actively turning tricks or asking for a fee, but for the most part she’s a prostitute. Until Jack Lemmon rescues her. Thank god there was a clear-headed man around.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/02/2010 to 11:23 am

    It’s truly depressing to me to see how far we haven’t come, though in this film, our lady in danger doesn’t get rescued, which is more true to life.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    6th/02/2010 to 12:25 am

    I liked The Chaser, which I wrote about almost a year ago. For me the bigger argument is one regarding violence in film, as well as judging the various elements that make up a film. I am feeling ambivalent about following Michael Haneke’s career after watching Benny’s Video in part because Heneke’s view of the world seems so lacking in hope. I’m also not in a rush to see Antichrist for similar reasons. Unlike many who embraced Inglorious Basterds, I found the film very well made, but ultimately juvenile. Why The Chaser worked for me is because Na’s played against audience expectations with his narrative, and because Eom’s relationship with the woman he was looking for shifted. As you probably recall, Dennis Cozallio wrote about why he would not see Irreversable. There is no right or wrong here, but rather one of articulating one’s thoughts as best as possible while also acknowledging one’s own subjectivity and respecting the subjectivity of others.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/02/2010 to 7:26 am

    Peter – I’m certainly not advocating the elimination of violence from film. It’s a part of life and needs to be explored. It is the serial killer genre that gives me particular problems, as it normalizes femicide as a convention. That’s why a film like Backyard can actually be about femicide and yet many reviewers don’t even seem to notice it. They evaluate the film as a film and decide if it’s a good thriller. That just seems incredibly wrong to me. A similar thing happened with The Chaser, which is also based on a true story. There are serial killers of men, yet I can’t think of a single film that explores that deviance. What I see is a corner of cinema devoted to allowing audiences to vicariously indulge their hatred of women.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    6th/02/2010 to 9:11 am

    This might not be what you had in mind, but there are a few films with a female killer and male victims. Most recently, there is Monster, with Charlize Theron. More controversial for some was Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45. Available currently as an import DVD is a film from Thailand that came out a little over a year ago, Meat Grinder. There is a trailer to this film with English subtitles at Youtube.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/02/2010 to 9:42 am

    Thanks for those examples. I can actually think of a few more. I almost made comment about Monster because Wuornos was quoted as saying she hated men. I think that was my point, that this genre largely is about hatred of women. I read Dennis’ comments on Irreversible, and I think his insights about Noe’s homophobia and general misanthropy speaks to this hatred. I could easily see a similar screed, as Dennis puts it, I think, made for neo-Nazis about all their hated groups. I don’t think such films really add anything to our society or the discussion on film, though I wouldn’t say they shouldn’t be made. I look for a more sophisticated ability to get beyond the gloss and look at what is propagandized.

  • Billy spoke:
    24th/03/2011 to 4:11 pm

    Excellent review! I would be interested in reading your thoughts on Kim Ji-woon’s I SAW THE DEVIL, which is a rather disturbingly violent tale of one man’s vengeance against a psychopathic serial killer.

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