I suppose every country gets the police force it deserves. In places where there’s true democracy and everyone is considered equal, the police will objectively investigate every allegation of wrongdoing without regard to the position or status of those accused, while impartial courts, presided over by incorruptible judges, make exemplary decisions based on the evidence. In all the other countries, the police are affected by different levels of corruption. Some will take money, some will merely be asleep at the wheel, taking their salaries and looking the other way lest they be caught up in work, while others simply use their positions to accumulate power. Perhaps I grow too cynical as I age but, having visited many countries and lived in a few, I’ve yet to find a society with a police force free from corruption.
All of which brings us to The Chaser or Chugyeogja or 추격자 (2008), a powerful thriller from Korea, written and directed by Hong-jin Na, with help on the script provided by Shinho Lee. For Joong-ho Eom, played by Yun-seok Kim, business is bad. He bit the bullet for many of his corrupt colleagues in a special unit of the police, taking early retirement and becoming a pimp. Business used to be quite good but, slowly, he’s been losing girls. Initially he thought they had just run off. Now he suspects something more serious. As an ex-detective, he takes a professional interest in trying to protect his girls. He’s usually in time to rescue those that get into trouble. Except he recognises the telephone number of a caller who was asking for a girl to meet him on a street corner. The number is associated with a previous disappearance. Convinced this is the man kidnapping and selling on his girls to prostitution rings in one of the larger cities, he tries to follow the increasingly cold trail.
Driving round the area where the girl Mi-jin Kim, played by Yoeng-hie Seo, was last reported, he collides with a car driven by Young-min Jee, played by Jung-woo Ha. His suspicions are roused and, after a chase, he makes a citizen’s arrest. This is problematic for the police because they must either come up with evidence in twelve hours or let him go. Now our hero must try to find Mi-jin (or her body) before the supposed killer is released. Except the police may not be able to hold the suspect the full twelve hours because our hero was less than gentle during the arrest. Beating up a suspect is frowned on, even when the one responsible is a member of the police force. When it’s an ex-police officer turned pimp, this all begins to look like a big law suit waiting to happen and some very bad publicity. The powers-that-be want to cut the suspect loose and hope the problem will go away. The few real detective are convinced they have a serial killer in their hands.
Let’s make a list of Joong-ho’s qualities. He may act tough, but he’s actually a conscientious man just trying to make a living as best he can. Armed with the skills he developed as a detective, he’s a shrewd judge of character and determined to solve the case. As circumstances conspire against him, he becomes genuinely concerned for Mi-jin. Guilt builds up when he discovers Mi-jin has a seven-year-old daughter. Now he’s doubly motivated to find “his” girl while protecting her daughter. What makes the film so interesting is the difference in approach between the official and unofficial investigations. The real police make very little progress, spending a lot of time arguing among themselves. Although there’s a futile wander through the wooded slopes on a nearby hillside in the dark while its raining, there’s no sign of any bodies and the suspect claims a bad memory on where they may be buried. Joong-ho actually tracks down the suspect’s family, gets background information suggesting multiple murders, and finds one of the places where the killer stayed. No matter what his faults, he has arrested the right man and he’s close to finding out what this killer has done with his girl. Except, of course, the prosecutor in charge orders the premature release of the suspect and now the race is on.
This is a film of passion and intensity. Our hero may have a background suggesting a lack of morals, but he’s ultimately heroic in the efforts he makes to find the girl. Unlike Hollywood, no-one pulls out a gun and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Yun-seok Kim is unable to engage in CGI-enhanced fights or demonstrate the driving skills of a rally-driving, demolition derby expert. Instead, he chases after suspects down dark alleys and struggles to subdue them when both chaser and chasee are struggling for breath. The realism of the entire venture is a virtue in its own right. We always have the sense that, if only he had a few more minutes or could push just that little bit harder, he would succeed. As it is, he’s distracted by the daughter and hung out to dry by his ex-colleague on the force. Who could possible succeed with such odds stacked against him?
It’s fascinating to watch Yun-seok Kim’s façade of indifference crumble as time begins to run out, while Jung-woo Ha remains emotionally disconnected from events despite being seriously battered by our hero. He seems not to fear admitting his status as a serial killer when he knows there’s no immediately available evidence he is telling the truth. The Chaser or Chugyeogja or 추격자 is a film you should watch. It’s gritty and passionate, and reaches an entirely unsentimental ending that feels right in all the circunstances.