My knowledge of South Korean films is limited to two directors: Bong Joon-Ho (director of an uneven yet unique monster film, The Host) and Park Chan-Wook (director of the magnificent Vengeance Trilogy). Both of these directors of a specific aesthetic that seems to be unique to South Korea more than to each director’s creative choices. For example neither of these famous directors shies away from using intense violence as part of the action. But they do not make it flashy like an American movie would. It is just a fact of life that people die in very brutal ways sometimes. As I venture outside of these two most famous exports of the South Korean film industry, I find this fact permenating almost every film I see. This intrigues me. I wonder why South Korean films can be so overt with their violence without glamorizing it and making it look “cool”? Maybe I can answer that question with tonight’s review: The Chaser.
The Chaser is about a pimp who is upset because some of his whores disappeared after he gave them large sums of money. This pimp decides to use his background as a police detective to find out what happened to these girls so he can get his money back or at least his investments. As he goes through the file, a phone number keeps popping up. This phone number of a john happens to be the last recorded for these whores before they went missing. He takes one of his remaining whores as bait and tracks this man that he suspects is selling his whores for his own profit. This turns out not to be the case. He is actually killing girls and burying them somewhere close to where he lives. (This is not a spoiler as you find out that he is a killer within the first half hour) The rest of the plot is full of twist and turns that I probably should not give away here.
The graphic scenes in this film are treated with such artistic delicacy that I want to say they are some of the best horror scenes I have ever seen. They treat their victim with the respect that is not awarded them within the plot structure. In one scene where one of the prostitutes is getting her head bashed in with a hammer and a stake, you see the man deliver the hit and you see the woman take it but you don’t see the actual bashing of the head in at all. When the pimp/detective and the murderer go head to head in several scenes, the action seems to be exactly what a man in those two very different situations would do. The action does not look faked at all and the blood spurts are subtle. This may not mean a lot to you, but it matters to me. I have never been the hugest fan of thriller/horror films. Although I recognize several films as being great in these genres, most of them are mediocre to the point of boredom. I think this is because most films subscribe to the Bond/Saw theory: the more explosions or blood there is, the better it is. The Chaser and several other films from South Korea that are categorized as thrillers or horror films are a breath of fresh air because they stray from this concept. They stray from it in such a beautiful way.
I am not quite sure after watching the Chaser and reflecting on other South Korean films, why overt violence is so accepted in their culture that they don’t have to glamorize it. Maybe it is because of their long and complicated history with their Northern counterparts. Or maybe it is because of their strong roots in Buddhism. What ever it is I appreciate it and can’t wait to see more great films emerge from this country.