5 July 2008

THE CHASER (Dir. Hong-jin Na, 2008, South Korea) - A killer, a pimp and his girl

In 2007, South Korean cinema experienced a crisis of confidence, with audiences losing faith and perhaps interest in the creative surge heralded by the new wave of filmmakers. Over 60% of the films that dominated the Korean domestic top ten originated from Hollywood, and the indigenous home grown talent that had emerged out of the new wave cinema suddenly and unexpectedly seemed to peak, leaving the door open for high concept blockbusters like ‘The Transformers’ movie to come in and clean up, capturing the attention of a film market heavily dominated by a western influenced youth audience. One only had to study the domestic box office figures for the top ten grossing films released domestically in South Korea to notice how successfully indigenous films were able to resist the hegemony of Hollywood.

One of the explanations for South Korea’s recent success with home grown films has been the implementation of a quota system, a strategy that has supported and promoted filmmakers by ensuring that a certain number of films are distributed and exhibited domestically. French cinema continues to utilise the quota system and though Britain does very little in terms of creating useful government initiatives to help with finding financing for filmmakers trying to break through into an insular industry, it still somehow manages to produce a handful of culturally relevant and internationally acclaimed films.

Currently, ‘The Chaser’ is the highest grossing film of 2008, and when it was released in February, it made a real impact on the box office, becoming an instant runaway hit. ‘The Chaser’ is not due here until September but it has already won a number of awards, and is another in a long line of startling and original debut features from Korean filmmakers who have been brought up on Hollywood genres.

Written and directed by Hong-jin Na, the film is an atmospheric contemporary neo noir set in the city of Seoul, shot mostly at night and featuring a macabre narrative that involves a serial killer and the unusually sympathetic character of a cop turned pimp. Based upon a true story, a series of call girls, all owned by the morbid pimp, Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim) begin to go missing. Joong-ho suspects somebody has been kidnapping his girls and selling them on to other competitors but his inquiries leads him to a much darker underworld, in which a notorious and prolific serial killer has been terrorising the city.

Admittedly, many aspects of the film are formulaic and tied closely to the serial killer genre, but what makes this a distinctly effective slice of mainstream Korean cinema, is the unusually light hearted characterisation of a pimp who comes across as the only sane person in the entire society being depicted. Not only are the police shown to be ineffective in catching the serial killer, they are also consumed by the obligations of protecting the integrity of the local Mayor at the expense of enforcing law and order. The conventional nature of the film manifests it most visibly in the representation of the serial killer who is slowly revealed to be the predictable psychotic loon with a raft of sexual inadequacies and a grizzly fascination for making his victims suffer before he buries them in the backyard.

For a first time director, Hong-jin Na, performs brilliantly in creating and sustaining dramatic tension, and the final climax is confidently handled, achieving an unusually powerful emotional impact that is both draining and gruelling to watch. ‘Memories of Murder’, ‘A Tale of Two Sisters’, ‘Oldboy’ are just a few of the films to have emerged out of the Korean new wave, and which are all now considered to be contemporary classics. Though ‘The Chaser’ falls short of joining such company, it is superior genre mainstream film making and should be welcomed for helping to reinvigorate the commercial prospects for indigenous Korean cinema.

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