Blows to the Head

12/30/2009 4:00 AM |

The Chaser
Directed by Na Hong-jin

Perhaps the most concrete example yet of day-and-date as Bermuda Triangle: the South Korean thriller The Chaser appeared on IFC Festival Direct last spring, hit the new-releases shelf at some point thereafter as a Blockbuster Exclusive, and finally opens theatrically this week. The platform trifecta is now complete, but if you’ve blinked since Cannes 2008, shortly before which Warner Bros. picked up the remake rights, then you’ve probably missed The Chaser. That’s more a theoretical problem than an actual one.
Part torture-porn nightmare, part corrosive comedy of police buffoonery, first-time director Na Hong-jin’s film is all Korean, a steeping of genre conventions in bile and ambiguity that recalls other recent imports from Park Chan-wook (Thirst) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host). The hero of Na’s proudly squalid thriller is a detective-turned-pimp; the cops are willfully hamstrung by ineffective process, more interested in saving the mayor’s face than other people’s lives; and the killer’s motives remain completely unexamined. It’s an intriguing spin on the serial-killer-manhunt subgenre of the policier, but the film also winds up subverting the expectation that its myriad twists and turns will generate some suspense.

The aforementioned antihero pimp, Jung-ho (Kim Yoon-suk), appears initially in a state of professional humiliation: he can’t keep track of the girls who work for him. He suspects another pimp has wrested them away from him, but some cell phone sleuthing leads him to suspect something more sinister is afoot. Thanks to a minor fender-bender, Jung-ho catches the blood-spattered killer, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo), early in the film, and the bumbling police take the suspect into temporary custody. The ostensible thrills are provided by the frantic search for the bodies of Young-min’s victims, the evidence that will allow the police to actually lock him away, and a hooker with a heart of gold in distress (a troubling stock composite in a film that otherwise seems to delight in complicating such things) who is desperately trying to escape the murderer’s den. Also, as the title promises, there are chases, each one less exciting than the last.

The Chaser’s brashest provocation is its depiction of the effectiveness of brutal vigilante methods in the face of corrupt and complacent official channels, but Na’s head-trauma fetish—chisel, chair, cinderblock, shovel, and hammer all deliver, or narrowly miss delivering, blows to one skull or another—routinely reminds that creative methods of bludgeoning are the film’s real reason for being. All well and good and gratuitous, but The Chaser’s pretense to thoughtfulness, which includes a baffling array of crucifixes, ratchets up the tedium rather than the tension.

Opens December 30 at IFC Center