When I watched Hong-jin Na's The Wailing in October, it blew me away, both in how its original perspective freshened up many old horror tropes and how Hong-jin's technical confidence excelled at making such a complicated story not only coherent but deeply compelling. I was excited to check out the director's previous two movies, and The Chaser (a.k.a. Chugyeogja) offers an early, if rough, peek at the same skillset in nearly complete development.
Although in some ways very similar to traditional serial killer thrillers, The Chaser is distinguished by Hong-jin's interesting subversion of typical formulas and his wonderful talent for crafting unorthodox characters and relationships that feel immediately real. Yun-seok Kim is fantastic as a depressed pimp desperate to discover why his employees keep disappearing without a trace. Although it sounds comical, and at times is mordantly funny, The Chaser never devolves into the exaggerated, goofy comedy that mars other Korean detective dramas, like Memories of Murder. Hong-jin is such an observant and sensitive dramatist that The Chaser remains grounded and compelling at all times.
It's the technical side in which The Chaser reveals its flaws, no doubt owing to the combination of its inexperienced director and an only slightly more seasoned director of photography, but these few rough edges have little effect on the overall experience of a terrifically harrowing and affecting debut from this remarkable new director. Just like he would later in The Wailing, Hong-jin elicits a wonderful performance from a young girl, in this case Yoo-Jeong Kim. My enthusiastic response to these two movies puts Hong-jin's sophomore effort, The Yellow Sea, extremely high on my must-watch list.
MovieLens suggested The Chaser as similar to a movie from my Top 20 movies, Zodiac. It's a good outlier recommendation. While there are more obvious mainstream Hollywood serial killer movies that could've been broached, The Chaser is unique and stylish, like David Fincher's epic, and follows a similar thread of obsession despite its much smaller scope.