It’s fairly common for me to have trouble getting into a movie for the first ten, twenty, thirty minutes, especially a subtitled movie or slow-paced indie, but then for it to grow on me where I’m at least reasonably interested the rest of the way. What’s quite a bit rarer is for a movie to grab me pretty early, but then for my interest to flag noticeably.
The Korean crime thriller The Chaser is an example of the second, less frequent, phenomenon. I was pretty well engrossed in it for the first half hour or so. And while it never lost me entirely, after that there were significant stretches that seemed noticeably slower and less engaging to me. In the end I liked enough about it to say that this is a pretty good movie, but for a time I thought it might be more than that.
The protagonist is a former cop, now working as a pimp. That’s not as big a leap across careers as it might sound. The movie depicts the cops as operating in a corrupt gray area, with him having been probably no worse than typical, but just having had the bad luck to get caught and take the fall and get kicked off the force. Meanwhile, pimping and prostitution exist in the same corrupt gray area, not legal but commonplace and mostly winked at.
The protagonist is mostly a sympathetic figure, which again is not as much of a leap as one might think, given that he’s a pimp. Because he’s really not the kind of blatant abuser one would expect a pimp to be. He’s somewhat impatient and assertive and scolding with his simpleton assistant and the women in his stable, but not to a degree that clearly exceeds many legitimate employers. He’s a bit of a hard ass as a boss, but no more scary or evil than that.
Plus as the movie develops, he shows a caring side toward one of the women who works for him—who is missing and could be dead—and then her daughter, for whom he awkwardly ends up functioning as a kind of temporary guardian.
As I say, the movie starts strong. The pimp is frustrated that apparently some of his employees have been leaving him for greener pastures, then he comes to believe that one of the johns who uses his service has been kidnapping them and selling them to other pimps, which soon leads instead to the hypothesis that the john is a serial killer who has been murdering them (and other people as well). Quickly we’re into the action of him trying to hunt down the john and rescue his latest possible victim, which includes some pretty good suspense of the serial killer toying with the victim, as well as a well-choreographed chase and fight scene.
But the movie soon enters into a slower phase. The serial killer is caught early, and in fact confesses, but the cops don’t know whether to believe his confession. Lacking enough evidence to hold him indefinitely, they resolve to release him shortly to avoid the scandal of harassing and incarcerating an innocent man (who, by the way, has been badly beaten up by their pimp former colleague, which they’ll have to explain somehow). So the story shifts from the protagonist chasing down the serial killer, to the protagonist racing the clock to get enough evidence against the serial killer so he doesn’t get released.
Unfortunately that investigative turn of man versus evidence is never as compelling as the man versus man physical conflict of the pimp and the serial killer. It’s OK, and the bringing out of the more human side of the pimp with the little girl and such is handled reasonably well, but the film noticeably loses steam compared to the early sequence.
It’s worth noting that the movie follows what I’ve learned is apparently de rigueur in South Korean films in that the cops are bumbling figures of ridicule. It’s not taken to the extreme that it is in some Korean movies certainly, but it’s there. For example, as the serial killer plot plays out, the cops are fending off criticism for being sufficiently lackadaisical to allow a protestor to get close enough to the mayor of Seoul to throw shit on him.
These cops have a little more competence, and a little more corruption and potential for malice than in the Korean movies where they’re played more clearly for laughs, but they’re still more goofy than cops in the average non-Korean movie.
I will give the movie credit for a small surprise near the end. It doesn’t make the move that would be typical, that would make for a “happier” ending. The development isn’t what I was rooting for necessarily, but I appreciate that it violates conventional expectations.
All-in-all, The Chaser is a worthwhile action movie, a little more intelligent than the typical mainstream Hollywood version of such a movie, with some gripping scenes early and late, albeit slower paced in between. Maybe it doesn’t fully live up to its potential, but it’s as good as I would expect a positively reviewed foreign film of this genre to be.