Sunday, December 7, 2008

THE CHASER (2008) a.k.a. Why Godard Was Wrong

See THE CHASER (2008) by Na Hong-jin.

It's December and I'm catching up on my movie watching for the year.

My vote for most entertaining and gripping serial killer thriller of the year goes to THE CHASER (2008), a box-office hit from South Korea that was written and directed by Na Hong-jin.

This film, which runs two hours and played briefly in Hong Kong a few months back, is about the chase to stop a serial killer by the least likely protagonist, a former detective who was kicked out of the force for taking bribes and is now a despicable pimp. This pimp is moved to act after some of his call girls go missing. At first he thinks some lowlife out there is abducting his girls and selling them to another human trafficker. Gradually, it dawns on him that a serial killer is killing them. Meanwhile, in the background, the police are also conducting an investigation to try to catch this killer.

Of course, this description doesn't do the film justice. THE CHASER is the best kind of thriller. In addition to social commentary about various aspects of modern life, it is masterfully-crafted and executed.

What do I mean by this? As is usually the case with the best storytelling, the film places the viewer in the exact place and viewpoint of the protagonist, whose single-minded pursuit of the villain is hampered by the bungling of the very police who banished him from their midst. The film puts the viewer through all the emotions that the protagonist goes through. If you watch this film and do not find it emotionally draining, then it's time to go get a check-up because something is kaputt.

This film has its share of violence and blood, but it is not your conventional whodunnit. The killer, one of the most chilling serial killers in film histroy, is revealed very early on (in the first 20 minutes) to the audience, and soon afterwards, to the police. What follows is what grips the audience. Simply put, THE CHASER is a film that sinks its teeth into the viewer from the start and doesn't let go. It's packed with tension. Were it a book, it'd be the best page-turner. Its depiction of the serial killer is truly chilling.

If you see one movie from those that are mentioned on this blog, then see THE CHASER.

Depicting the journey of a fallen man who comes to grips with pure evil, it is an intelligent film for adults but also wholly accessible and entertaining.

Am I am not aware of American and European films?

Quite the opposite. I am enamored with films from the French New Wave and the gritty in-your-face films of Pasolini, the subversive films of Fassbinder, and other European filmmakers of the 60s and 70s. Some of my favorite films are American films from the 1970s.

But that's all ancient history.

The fact is, at this point in time, South Korea is where the most interesting and gripping movies are being made. Sure like any other country, they also produce a whole lot of utter junk. But the gems are gems.

In contrast, most movies coming out of the U.S. are, in effect, special effects cartoons made for children and most movies from Europe tend to be dull little things that lack creativity. Someone, I think it might have been Catherine Deneuve, decried the sad state of French films by saying that too many French films went like this: "Jacque sleeps with Marie. Marie sleeps with Paul. Paul sleeps with Genevieve. Then, they all go to a restaurant."

It's sad but true, but it's been almost 10 years since I saw a French film that was truly exciting. England fares better. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) is proof of this. And don't even get me started on what's happened to the once amazing Hong Kong film industry that's now but a frivolous imitation of itself.

Of course, this is all just an opinion and one that is based on huge generalities. But this view is not an isolated one. Film lovers and festival programmers throughout Europe know Kim Ki-duk, Park Chan-wook, Hong Sang-soo, among others, as well as the amazing output of films coming from South Korea.

As for why South Korea is enjoying this sudden prestige as movie capital of the world, who knows?

In an appearance on the DICK CAVETT SHOW, Godard--in the 1990s at the East Village Kim's Video, where videos were displayed on shelves under names of directors, the hipster clerks there did away with "Godard" and filed his films under "God"--suggested that of all the arts, films were unique in that they were, in effect, made by the public.

According to this reasoning, it is the public who actually guides and shapes what films get produced by supplying their input through the box office. In other words, if many people go watch a piece of junk, this encourages the continued production of junk, and vice-versa.

I don't quite agree with Godard's view on this in that I don't think there is something special about Korean moviegoers. I think it's more likely that it's just luck. A dozen or so very talented people just happened to be born in Korea at around the same time. That's all.

Whatever the case, what makes Korea's emergence as a filmmaking mecca that much more impressive is just how quickly the South Korean film industry has risen up from the ashes. In 1996, I visited a South Korean filmmaker I knew from NYU who had gotten his chance to make his feature film debut for the leading film production company in Korea at the time.

I was shocked to find just how small and amateurish Korean film production at that time was. The scale was so small and the quality of films made was so poor. Indeed, things were so not impressive and so not promising that when the film director offered me an assistant director post for his production, I said no. I just didn't think South Korean films were going anywhere. (Shows how much I know.)

Today, just a little over a decade later, filmmakers in South Korea are making the most interesting and entertaining films in the world.

If you haven't seen THE CHASER. See it. Go and get the DVD somehow. It will be the most entertaining film you see this year.

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