CHUGYEOGJA (2008)

Kim Yoon-seok as Joong in a still from The Chaser
  • English Title: The Chaser
  • Release Date: 19/09/2008
  • Cast: Kim Yoon-seok, Jung-woo Ha, Yeong-hie Seo
  • Director: Hong-jin Na

A film that crawls under your skin in the worst possible ways and brings all your nightmares to life

Chugyeogja is the story of a disgraced and retired cop, Joong ho-Eom (Kim Yoon-seok) who now earns his living by pimping girls. The film begins with one of his girls meeting up with a client, travelling across the city, parking her car on a road and then walking away with the client never to be seen or heard off from again. The car remains parked where it was left and the piling load of advertisements and dried leaves on it informs us about the passage of time and the fact that it was not touched ever since it was parked. The police finally track down the vehicle but the girl is never found. Joong believes that the girl might have been sold off for a better bargain by the man who was pretending to be a client or she might have eloped with him. He vows to kill her if he ever found her again.

Mi-ji Kim (Yeong-hie Seo) is a prostitute who works for Joong and is down with severe flu. Her young daughter is taking care of her but her condition doesn’t look to be getting any better. It is at this juncture that she receives a call from Joong, who literally forces her against her will and physical strength to serve a client. Mi-ji meets up with this client, picks him up in her red Matiz, and proceeds to his house. At the same time, Joong realizes from the client’s phone number that he is the same person who had hired each and every one of Joong’s missing girls just before they disappeared. He immediately informs Mi-ji to text him the client’s address once they arrive there so that he could learn from the man the whereabouts of his girls and get them back. Strangely, Mi-ji also disappears after leading Joong to a certain neighborhood. Joong believes that he is close enough to the man who he associates with nothing but a phone number, “4885”.

After scouting the neighborhood for a while, Joong accidentally rams his car into that of Young-min Jee’s (Jung-woo Ha). After a brief altercation, he realizes that Young-min is the man he is looking for. Young-min tries to escape but is subdued by Joong. He tries to force him into confessing the location of the girls but he doesn’t. Circumstances develop in such a way that Joong and Young-min are arrested and land up in the nearby police station where Young-min innocently confesses to having killed the girls. Thus begins a night of horrendous discoveries, police corruption, and ineptitude and one that makes an unlikely hero out of a despicable man who by the end of it all realizes and is weighed in by the quantum of the results of his selfish action. His actions not only put a life at risk of being violently obliterated but also threatens the existence and future of an innocent who is set to lose more from the entire episode than anyone else.

Chugyeogja is a gripping, realistic, and thrilling affair that is drenched in the filth, rain, and sweat of the men and the milieu wherein it unfolds. There are no heroes, no choreographed action set pieces or perfect frames. There isn’t a single character in the film with a clear moral compass or more compassion for others than care for their own gains. The protagonist of the film is Joong, who spends almost the entirety of the film trying to beat out of Young-min the whereabouts of the girls that went missing. He doesn’t do it to ensure their safety but so that he could put them back in business and earn on the investment that he had made on them. He was set to capture and interrogate the man on his own but as he lands in the hands of the cops things get even murkier.

Jung-woo Ha as Young-min and Yeong-hie Seo as Mi-ji in a still from The Chaser

The police are having a bad night as on that very night, a man threw “shit” on the face of the mayor and the police’s inability to safeguard the mayor from the catastrophic assault has huge implications on their efficiency and existence. It is at this juncture that they land their hands on Young-min who confesses to having killed at least a dozen girls. His confession gives the police an opportunity to bring forth a case in front of the media that is bigger than the case of the mayor being assaulted. The fact that they have captured the killer and look set to prosecute him only makes their position that much strong in front of the media that for so long was gunning for their heads because of their inefficiency. In the excitement of putting Young-min in front of the media as their prized catch, they use such means and ploys to implicate him that in the end works in favor of Young-min, to the utter dismay of Joong.

If all this was not enough, we have a perpetrator, young-min who pretends to be mentally unstable. Joong doesn’t believe that he has committed any murder to start with but as he dwells more and more into Young-min’s past, he realizes what the police were dealing with and it sends shivers down his spines. Young-min seems to be in total control of the situation as even after being thrashed multiple times, the police look no closer to unearthing any solid evidence against him that they could use to keep him in custody. Worse is the fact that luck seems to be on his side as some strange coincidences not only make his life easier but also ensure that the police and Joong have a harder time tracking down the whereabouts of the girls that Young-min confesses to having killed and cut to pieces.

Kim Yoon-seok is sensational as Joong. It isn’t easy playing a protagonist that is difficult to like and then gradually morph into one that the viewer can relate with and root for. He achieves this by bringing in a very realistic version of the character and putting forth the emotions and needs that drive his initial unsavory actions as also the later more noble actions. I would go to the extent of saying that watching a heartless man like him being triggered and horrified by the sheer cruelty and the insanity of what Young-min does to his girls not only elevated the impact Joong’s character but also made Young-min a much more fearsome and loath-worthy adversary. It is through his expressions and sudden acts of violence triggered by his inability to do anything to this monster and find the whereabouts of the last girl that he desperately wants to save is the only release of our frustration that we are allowed in this otherwise bleak and harrowing film that is almost completely devoid of any silver lining.   

Jung-woo Ha as Young-min is a lot of things and “human” is not one of them. The fact that he has a childlike innocence about him only makes his rendition of the monster that much more bewildering. The director never gives us much detail about his psyche or the reasons behind his brutality towards women. He is about to tell his motives to a psychologist but the scene goes in a very different direction after he is repeatedly abused by the psychologist. Thus we never fully understand him. We do get bits and pieces of what might have triggered him but never the entire truth. Jung-woo Ha’s rendition of the character is so perfect that it is impossible not to be in the awe of his performance. Even his smile tells a hundred stories and none of those is good. Just lookout for the scene where he makes a female cop uncomfortable with his questions and you will understand why I was so impressed by is performance. This film belongs to him even though he has a shorter screen time than Kim Yoon-seok. It is the looming shadow of his presence on the entire narrative and the uncertainty of what he would do next that is the source of most of the fear, anxiety, and discomfort in the film.

Jung-woo Ha as Young-min in a still from The Chaser

The tension and drama in Chugyeogja are as much about the character, story, and the twists as it is about the visuals, style, editing, and mood. I just loved the look and feel of the film and the organic motion of it. The story is constantly moving forward and the surge forward is depicted in the visuals and the actions. I especially enjoyed the chase and the hand to hand fight sequences. The chase sequences are not only beautifully shot and edited but are done in a way that gives us an idea of the actual physicality involved in the bits. We see the characters finding it hard to catch a breath. Their movements are disoriented and their actions haphazard. Even the hand to hand combats exude a similar feel and it went a long way into making these sequences even more effective and affecting. There are some scenes that are elevated purely because of how well they are envisioned, shot, and edited keeping aside the consistently good performances.

Chugyeogja is one of the finest thrillers about a serial killer and the hunt for him. It doesn’t get its due credit in the presence of some of the better-known and more exalted South Korean films but for me, this is easily one of the best Korean films ever made. Everything in the film fell in place and there wasn’t anything that I would have liked being done differently here. If that is not great filmmaking, then I don’t know what is.   

Rating: 4/5 (4 out of 5 Stars)

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