There are a handful of moments in The Chaser—the thrillerish, feature-length debut of Korean director Na Hong-Jin—that tease its audience with smirking conventionality: We watch a sweet but sickly prostitute contrivedly traipse into the proverbial lion’s den or a good-natured but worldly pimp extemporaneously take an orphaned girl under his wing and we momentarily feel the film slipping from its jejune progenitor’s control. The slipperiness, however, eventually defines the movie’s milieu. The Chaser is a clever riff on cops-and-criminals formalism that interpolates old-fashioned plot devices (a missing girl, a cryptic phone number, an epicene serial killer, a corrupt mayor) into a Borgesian web of forking paths and gleeful MacGuffins, ultimately deriving its primary tension not from the possibility or garishness of corporeal harm—though there’s plenty of that both off-screen and on—but from a lust for inductive discovery that haphazardly teeters on the precipice of genre cliché.
The storyline yelps deceptively for comparisons to the Hong Kong crime import Infernal Affairs (and, indeed, The Departed script-smith William Monahan has reportedly signed on to adapt The Chaser for domestic interpretation, and no doubt dilution); much like Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s tidily wound film, the fallible law enforcement microcosm of The Chaser is meant to be taken allegorically, with the feudalist assertion of man’s anxiety over the tenuousness of social protection skulking in the neon and cold tile. But where Infernal Affairs presented the fearful symmetry of criminological dualism via wolves and sheep parading in each other’s pelts (boiled down, the film’s morality is nothing more than a pair of purposeful liars who serve a God and a devil, respectively), the opaque ethics of The Chaser elide the reductive nature of binary pairs, focusing instead on the far more piquant complexity of human behavior.
Hong-Jin’s main character, Jung-ho (Kim Yoon-suk), is an ex-cop-turned-prostitution-trafficker whose employees have been disappearing; Yoon-suk approaches the ensuing chick-hunt with vaguely frustrated amusement, as though he can’t quite entirely believe his career has been reduced to the fretful need for sellable bodies, and even after learning of his chattel’s grisly resting places, he expresses compassion like a fleeting form of emotional exhaustion. Most impressively, it’s clear from the film’s seemingly perpetual stream of rough-housing set pieces that Jung-ho is director Hong-Jin’s sly stand-in: Just as the former avoids both the soft pain of sympathy and the trite distance of numbness by remaining passionate about his seedy profession and its opportunities for masculine catharsis, Hong-Jin reserves his cheeky ardor for subtle displays of craftsmanship.
Unlike the directors of Infernal Affairs, Hong-Jin refreshingly fuels his philosophical engine with montage: His film’s most voluminous debt isn’t to Asian crime drama but to Fritz Lang’s M, which similarly revealed its villain’s predatory habits and torturous self-awareness as a exordium to municipal methodology, thereby infusing the plot’s primary machinations—the fiery logic of self-preservation and subterranean urban ethics—with high-stakes dread. Since the killer of The Chaser—a shifty, ball-cap wearing homunculous named Kim Min-ji (Seo Yeong-hee), whose features recall the intimidatingly beady-eyed boyishness of Satoshi Kon’s Lil’ Slugger—is peacefully taken into custody toward the end of the first act, the film’s tension expands and contracts with Jungo-ho’s muscular realization of Min-ji’s previously indulged meat-hook-and-hammer psychosis. Crosscutting between Jung-ho’s tetchy search for incriminating evidence (which is, in the movie’s sole misstep, hindered hideously by the police), Min-ji’s giddily meaningless confessions before hapless authorities, and the barely-living remains of Min-ji’s final whore victim as she claws a bound-and-gagged path to survival, Hong-Jin sustains an atmosphere of rhythmically festering futility without the possibility of facile redemption.
None of which is to say that The Chaser transcends the typical shortcoming of cat-and-mouse detective fiction (namely, possessing a boney hollowness where a bleeding human thesis should be), but the frazzled ratiocination coating the film’s buoyant technique irresistibly and trenchantly splays the movie’s braininess on its surface. It’s not unusual for surfaces to speak eloquently in Asian cinema, but Hong-Jin’s most memorable images—wet noodles glassily reflecting smeared neon, puddles of urine forming at the feet of frightened children, and finally, in the masterfully restrained climax, men clumsily scrapping at one another like animals in crepuscular hovels—remind us of how visually pensive film can be. The success of The Chaser lies in its angularly superficial courage. Murder is euphoric; revenge is a sordid, albeit necessary, afterthought.