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Rated 3.01 stars
by 265 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Seoul Men
by Adam Hakari

It's common practice in show business for movies to compare themselves to one another for the sake of publicity. More often than not, these films hope to hitch a ride on the success of more popular movies, even if only tangentally related. Using this practice, South Korea's The Chaser might earn a place alongside Seven and other serial killer thrillers with a real mean streak. But although it operates on an agenda similar to David Fincher's film, The Chaser meets with much less success. Yes, deception is the name of the game early on, but the story soon grows weary of toying with the viewer's mind and begins prolonging the plot for kicks.

Joong-ho (Yun-seok Kim) is a disgraced cop who's moved onto pimping, and unfortunately for him, business is bad. In the past few weeks, some of Joong-ho's girls have disappeared, leading him to believe they skipped town on their own. But he soon suspects foul play after discovering the missing women were all sent to the same man. Joong-ho tracks down the culprit, the sullen Young-min (Jung-woo Ha), who fesses up to a recent string of murders -- though it doesn't end there. Young-min cryptically hints that his latest victim, Mi-jin (Yeong-hie Seo) is alive, sending Joong-ho on a frantic quest to find her. Time is of the essence, as Young-min can only be held so long without evidence, after which the psycho will be allowed to roam the streets once again.

The Chaser became a considerable hit in its native Korea last year, and its appeal is easy to see, for the premise is simple but handled with a great deal of ambition. The film's overall quality is all the more impressive considering it's from a first-time filmmaker, Hong-jin Na. What I enjoyed most about The Chaser involves Na's refusal to let the story be easily pinned, although this causes him trouble later on. For the story's first half, you're never quite sure where it's going;  it's obvious that Joong-ho's journey will be about more than a missing hooker, but it's Young-min who's the real wild card. Evil tends to come in two packages, the grandiose kind that usually results in an Oscar nomination or that of a subtle, almost passive persuasion. Ha takes the latter approach with his performance, and while Young-min is a disturbed lad indeed, the ambiguous extent of his misdeeds provides plenty to ponder about. 

Over the course of its two hours and change, The Chaser adopts a number of personas. It's at once a morality tale, a revenge film, and, as the title indicates, a chase thriller. It also finds time for a little political commentary, as the police use the hunt for Mi-jin to distract the public from an incident involving the mayor of Seoul. The Chaser is a lot of different parts, but the whole is another story. Na nibbles at the thematic treats piled on his plate yet never makes a meal out of it. Various subplots go by half- or even one- third developed, which, between a main plot that's overextended, makes for a taxing running time. I still admired the story's edginess, from Yun-soek Kim's antihero to a particularly dark turn later on, but the picture of the film I painted in my head was better than what I was actually watching. Young-min's nonchalant cruelty also fluctuates when the plot threatens its vague nature as it winds down to a close.

In the grand scheme of world cinema, The Chaser isn't all that hot, particularly when Korean directors like Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim wow audiences without breaking a sweat. But as an all-around film, The Chaser is an improvement over the norm. While other thrillers of its ilk are content with being big-screen CSI episodes, it soothes the soul to know that someone somewhere wants to jazz things up a bit.

MY RATING: ** 1/2 (out of ****)

(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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