Director: Na Hong-jin
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).