02 August, 2009

When I was your age they would say we can become cops or criminals

So here's the thing.

The other Wednesday night, a friend of mine went to see the film Still Walking. This film, which she said was excellent and well worth seeing, was a Japanese film about "family". Now, the thing is, "family" is pretty much the cliché subject matter for an arthouse or a film festival movie. (Basically, arthouse films are about the trials and tribulations of family life, whereas film festival movies are about the trials and tribulations of family life, but in French.) Now, no doubt these are all very well made, intelligent, charming, thought-provoking films. And I managed to see a wide variety of films in the festival outside the family drama genre. But even so there is a very definite festival film type. Even a science fiction thriller film like Moon would never be mistaken for a multiplex film - it's too slow and deliberate (and the better for it).

Which was why I went to see the Korean film The Chaser (see the pretty awful UK trailer here, or the much-better-but-in-Korean trailer here). I'd never heard of it until reading its listing in the programme, but the film quickly became my most anticipated film of the festival, largely because it seemed like a film that should never be in the festival. If people asked what I was going to see in the festival, I would always mention this one. And then once the festival started people would ask me whether I had seen the film yet. All based solely on one sentence contained in the film description:

"A disgraced cop turned pimp racing to rescue one of his girls from a slacker serial killer."

Isn't that the greatest description of a film ever? I wasn't surprised to see the notices on the cinema door stating that they had added extra screenings of the sold-out film, because once you read that description, how could you not want to see it? Especially since, in a festival filled with slow important films about "family", this is something quite different. Other than the fact that it's in Korean, this could play in any shopping mall cinema anywhere. (No surprise that the Hollywood remake rights have already been sold.)

There were three words in that description that really made me want to see the film. Slacker serial killer. I don't know abut serial killers in real life, but your typical cinematic serial killer is definitely no slacker. As a result, I just couldn't conceive of what a slacker serial killer would look like. And now I know what it looks like. It's pretty much what it says on the box, a slacker, albeit one who likes to kill people. He constantly looks bored, a bit out of it, not terribly interested in anything. When calling local pimps for a girl to be his next victim, he reuses the same phone number over and over again, making identification surprisingly easy. He barely cleans up after himself, leading to a scene where the film's main victim finds the scalp of the previous victim in the shower. When he commits his crimes, he finds their struggles to be an irritation. After a particularly bloody killing, he doesn't even change his blood-stained clothes before leaving to drive somewhere. At one point in the film, in a particularly impressive display of "don't care", he voluntarily admits to being a killer in certain circumstances where most people would stay silent. Everything about this guy marks him as a fairly typical, non-descript, somewhat dull young man, who seems just as bored when killing people as when sitting watching TV with a blank expression. (In fact, it was a disappointment when, late in the film, they come across a room where the killer used to live, and find he did some redecoration. Covering your walls with paintings of bloodied body parts is typical serial killer behaviour, but not very slacker-y.)

Having established just what a slacker serial killer looks like, I come to look at the rest of the film, and find that it was pretty great. With any thriller, the key issue is whether the film is suspenseful, and it absolutely is. In particular, there's a moment about 40 minutes into the film where the plot takes an unexpected turn, causing the film to develop into something entirely unexpected and quite brilliant. The film is the debut from director Hong-jin Na (the film appears in the New Directions section of the festival, which is dedicated to first- and second-time directors), and he displays a clear confidence and certainty in his direction. Since the film is a race-against-time film, I was particularly impressed with the director's ability to subtly communicate that passage of time, raising the tension in the audience, without feeling like he was being obvious about it. Hong-jin Na also co-wrote the screenplay, which manages to develop convincing characters while constantly surprising with unexpected yet natural plot developments, and even managing to find time to offer some nice social commentary about contemporary obsessions, vigilantism, and bureaucratic systems. And there's even a small bit of humour running through the film, due in part to a pretty funny subplot focused around a protester that threw human excrement in the face of the mayor (it's funnier than it sounds).

And I think that small level of humour is pretty essential to the film, because it's a dark film. I wouldn't go so far as to call the film gory, but it's definitely grisly. But it's more than just being a film where unpleasant images are put on screen - there's a fundamental cynicism and fatalism in the film's worldview. In the world of The Chaser, hope is just something to keep you going a little longer until you take the next battering. And with the exception of the film's main victim, the clichéd "prostitute with a heart of gold and an adorably cute child", no-one comes off well. Our film's hero is not just a pimp accustomed to everyday brutality, he's so certain in his belief that previous victims have only run off with his money that it's surprising how long it takes him to realise what this guy is actually doing. Meanwhile the cops, who should be trying to help find this girl that may still be alive, instead become obsessed with ripping up huge areas of concrete in the search for long-dead victims.

Anyway, it's a really enoyable movie, a thoroughly engaging, well-crafted work by a new filmmaking talent who I look forward to enjoying in the future.

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