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"The Chaser," a great thriller from South Korea


The movie I want to talk about is Korean Movie "The Chaser." I watched it in early 2008 and I hadn't had much expectation since watching its trailer. However, after watching the movie, I chose it as one of the best Korean movies of 2008.

Several weeks ago, Mr. Ebert gave enthusiastic review to this terrific film and I decided to talk about it as part of the Korean audience.

The movie is good example of suspense defined by Hitchcock; We know who the killer is and what hideous act he can do and what will happen if he can't be stopped. The movie keeps us on the edge of the seat throughout its running time, and the setting is crucial in the process.

Director Na Hong-jin, this is his first effort, captures the atmosphere of dark alleys so vividly that I instantly reacted to what's shown in the screen. This is real world I have known for years and I have seen that kind of houses and I know how they look like inside. So I could believe some serial killer is lurking somewhere in that area while watching this movie.

Killer's method is, well, I will just say his tools of choice are hammer and chisel and that made lots of Korean audience wince. We never know his motives and, even with some psychological opinion and bits of information about him, he is complete blank page. Ha Jung-woo's memorable performance is chilling mixture of childishness and callousness. He treats his victims like insects to be squashed regardless of whether they want to live or not. His main victims are mere call-girls and he says at some point nobody will care about them even if they are gone. 


However, someone begins to care about their disappearance. But his motive is not so clean. Jung-ho is their pimp who is also ex-cop. He suspects that somebody steals girls from him and sells them to somewhere. He finds one client especially suspicious but he has already sent one of his girl, Mi-jin, to that client. Of course, that client is the killer, and, after meeting him on street and walking into his house, Mi-jin realizes that she is trapped in the house of horror.

Some time later, the killer is coincidentally caught by the pimp outside of his house and, after some intense chase and struggle, both are sent to police station. The killer confesses he killed lots of woman to officers, but that is not the end of story. There is no direct evidence and the killer has been caught and released several times before. In addition he nullifies his confession again and he will be on the loose after 12 hours. We can clearly predict what will happen then. He will go to his house where the girl is locked alive. Now it's Jung-ho's mission to find killer's house and save her before it's too late.


At first, we don't like this seedy guy. However, thanks to Kim Yun-seok°Øs strong performance, he is complex character we can identify with. He is not changed much in the end, but he finds he still has heart inside. In Cormac McCarthy's "Crossing," blind old man said true evil has the power to sober the smalldoer against his own deeds and the movie agrees to that. Confronting with unexplainable evil, Jung-ho's conscience and cop instinct are awaken. He didn't believe serial killing at first but realizes later that he pushed the girl to horrible situation. He feels guilty about her, he cares her young daughter, and he really wants to find and save her for her daughter as soon as he can. He desperately runs and we run along with him.

There is lots of anger in the movie especially toward incompetence of police. They are still struggling with "Arrest and Squeeze" mentality from our violent past. They are not stupid and they are sensible enough to sense something wrong from the killer. But they more care about saving their positions and public image so they choose to do wrong things. The movie does not try to make a speech about that. Instead, the movie manipulates us into anger and frustration by showing what happens in the story as a result.


The movie works because it makes us deeply care about characters. Seo Yeong-hie plays Mi-jin and she is more than 'woman in the danger' in horror movies. She has the will to survive because of her daughter and tries as far as she can in very dire situation. We are so much involved in her situation that one misguided trust of minor character is simply devastating to us. And we becomes mad about problematic system who ignores and cannot protect the most vulnerable.

The action scenes are the one of reasons making this movie special. There are memorable chase sequences in dark labyrinth of night alleys. They are short, but they are more realistic and effective than mindless action scenes with lots of quick cuts. Actors are really running and camera steadily follows them with few cuts. You see, they can run well but that is just for few minutes. In the end, they got so winded that they barely fight after intensive running. Nobody can run and fight like Jason Bourne in real world. But I think both "The Chaser" and "Bourne Ultimatum" has clear sense of time, space, and continuity despite different style and I admire that.


The director is also expert in pulling emotions from quiet scenes. In one scene, we just hear raining sound but don't hear anything from characters in car. Nevertheless, that scene is one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the movie. The final showdown is firmly supported by story and characters and it's not just fight but big emotional payoff. Again, everything in that scene is very realistic and we believe it all. They are not fighting machine but exhausting normal guys.

On the second viewing, I found lots of holes in the story, especially in police procedure. In spite of these weaknesses, the movie is still terrific and it sidesteps them while constantly running fast for more than two hours. As many people pointed out, the movie is very violent you may be repulsed by its horrific violence. However, you can't miss it if you love good thriller. Hitchcock had probably never dreamed of putting his blond beauties into such brutal danger, but he would have admired this exemplary thriller.

"The Chaser" was unexpectedly powerful movie with tons of verisimilitude to me and it is still well-made thriller. It will grip you immediately and then it will take your breath away. Thank you Mr. Ebert for reminding me that good thriller knows no cultural or lingual boundary and encouraging me to make this video. Thank you for listening to my stuttering review and I hope we will meet again soon next time.    

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 If you ask me to describe myself, I will say I am just one of those amateur critics who have watched lots of movies every year. I know many names of great directors or actors or other legendary technicians. I know some technical terms. I know when and how to apply around 40% of them in my reviews and I recently learned what the hell master shot is. I know what David Bordwell means to other serious critics but I read only one of his books, "Film History: An Introduction". Sadly, there was only vol. 1 in my campus library but it was very intriguing to know from that book that they also had movie critics during silent movie.

Somehow, I'm usually capable of recognizing good movies. I am passionate about them and I love to talk with people about them. When I frequented bars in those alcoholic days, my topic for strangers were movies (and books, sometimes). I talked with bartenders and other customers about old movies and new movies of the week shown in our local theaters. I'm 27 and still in feedback learning stage in case of moviegoing. I know my limits and I have been struggling with them.

I was born at Jesus Hospital (Presbyterian one founded in 1897) in Jeonju on March 3rd, 1983. My family are Buddhist on records, but we can be fairly described as agnostic. My father has been working at Korea National Housing Corporation for nearly 30 years and will soon happily retire. My mother has been elementary school teacher and, if she could speak English, she freaks many of you like Mrs. Miller in "Almost Famous". My mom didn't like that movie much but instantly identified part of herself in the character.

Mom and Dad have been exemplary parents and diligent professionals. They worked hard for us and our family has moved from small apartment to big one step by step. I am very grateful for what they have done for us because I still remember well where we started from. They made it possible for me to experience so many things including books, music, and, of course, movies. I wish I could have done better for them.

I don't remember my first experience with movie. My mom went to some movie theater with me when I was 2 and it was "Amadeus". But I remember my first voluntary experience with movie well; it was dubbed version of "Innerspace" on TV.

From then, I began to love watching movies. After high school, I wanted to see more movies and I was in timely period. Thanks to Internet and DVD and lots of freedom in university campus, my eyes became more open to movies in the 21th century and I could enjoy their works more easily than before. There were suspicious but cheap DVDs or shadowy sources all around me and I seized and watched movies without one second of hesitation. Nevertheless, I value proper DVD release much because they mostly come with better quality and useful supplements.

I am not very sociable person, despite always trying to be nice and courteous. With strange accent (so-called "textbook accent), I have been treated like some weirdo since kindergarten years and my brain doesn't seem to be a talented editor for piles of information my sensory neurons gather from people around me. I usually have trouble with communicating with them during conversation. People cannot see whether I'm serious or not when I say something and vice versa. Don't worry, I was also horrified by "All About Steve" with my eyes rolling with incredulousness. 


Good movies always directly provide my brain valuable point of views. They are sometimes like guide books for empathy to me because they captures something I cannot sense well in real world. Along with good books, they remind me I can still feel something. From Bergman's movies, I learned I was not the only one who was desolate inside and scratching others outside. I have been always fascinated with Charlie Kauffman's movies because I have resided in my head for quite a long time. One of my memorable empathic moments last year was "The Hurt Locker". I am not a soldier in Iraq, but I understood his situation near the end quite well. I used to be in similar situations, although it takes a little shorter for me now.

And "Up in the Air" (2009) summarizes my lifestyle for more than 10 years in far more luxurious and humorous way; I have had traveled around rooms "up in the air" in dormitories. I just study or work as instructed, I have some sleep in room given to me, I have my own happiness from movies and books and others things, and I have very few human connections except routine family visits. I shared rooms with other students but they did not know much about me except movies. Now, more alone than before, here comes lots of anxiety about my future to be handled by myself because the bubble is falling apart now. The last scene is especially haunting to me; I really have to go somewhere with purpose this time.

Even though I had been comfortable with isolation, I desired to connect with others interested in movies so my writings are usually about movies. I began to write about my opinions on movies around late 2002. I'm not a good writer(one of my readers complained my writings are too static to read), but there is less chance of impulse and following troubles in writing process than conversation. Before you show it to others, lots of corrections and afterthoughts is possible for eliminating any misunderstandings or mistakes or problems. Thoughts come out of my head and then I check again and again whether they are appropriate in manner or grammar with several editing and pasting for clear expression.

I decided to start my blog in 2008 and I have never looked back from that point. I visited Mr. Ebert's blog and then other wonderful bloggers introduced by him last year. My site is not English blog, but I have been considering about writing in English for wider communication. Recently, I did the test run with my personal Oscar Prediction days ago and maybe I will be able to do the same thing for some of my future reviews.  

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2009 was a turbulent year to me and I have been sort of banishment state in my campus. But it was also a good year like any other years before in theaters. I saw lots of movies and enjoyed most of them. I stopped drinking after concluding alcohol does not get along with watching movies and I ran vigorously between lots of movies and wrote around 380 reviews.

This year is the year of uncertainty to me and time is short for me now. At least, I will be able to enjoy Oscar, Chicago, and Ebertfest during that short period, and then I will move on to whatever I will have to do. I am not so proud of myself. I have messed up a lot while living my life, but it has provided me lots of good things. I have been lucky to have good parents and enjoy lots of movies and books under their protection. And also lucky to get acquainted with Mr. Ebert and his far-flung correspondents and other prolific bloggers and to express my opinion about movies freely.

There is one more thing I want to tell you. In 2007 December, I got out of boot camp after finishing 4 weeks military training. During that period, along with trainees, I had to deal with movies like "Resident Evil 3" on Sunday as well as some lousy propaganda/education movies in weekdays. As soon as I returned to my town, I watched four movies in row at local multiplex. The quality varied among them(In chronological order, "August Rush", "Death Sentence", "Hairspray", and "I am Legend"), but I came to believe more in the power of movies than before. I still do and I still will, even if I'm separated from them for a while.




Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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