Welcome back to Let’s Scare Bryan to Death, where this month I have a very interesting treat. Those who remember my interview with Alexandra West about the movie Pyewacket know we both loved it, so this month I’m thrilled to have a chat with the film’s director, Adam MacDonald, who you might also know from his film Backcountry and the third season of Slasher.
For this month’s film, we’re taking a look at MacDonald’s favorite of all time, a South Korean thriller from Hong-jin Na called The Chaser (2008). Now, I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical based on the synopsis provided by IMDb: A disgraced ex-policeman who runs a small ring of prostitutes finds himself in a race against time when one of his women goes missing.
From that synopsis I was expecting something overly stylized and action-oriented like Taken, but Hong-jin is much more measured in his approach to the film. He doesn’t depict ex-cop Joong-ho Eom (Yoon-seok Kim) as some kind of antihero, but rather as a deeply flawed man who treats women like property and unwittingly sends one of them, Mi-jin Kim (Yeong-hie Seo), into the hands of serial killer Young-min Jee (Jung-woo Ha). MacDonald recalls being similarly surprised when he first saw the film. (SPOILER WARNING: Key plot details will be covered in our discussion.)
I had the same thing you did when I rented it, especially with it named The Chaser. I thought it was going to be much more of an action movie. Boy was I wrong… I'd never really watched a Korean thriller or horror film, but I went to the foreign section [of my local video store] and I was like, “Whoa!” I mean the cover... I don't know if you've seen the poster. It's incredible... it's so provocative. I never really got into action films so much, or martial arts films. But of course the Japanese films that influenced Pyewacket, like The Ring and other J-horror, I absolutely love. But I never really got introduced to Korean movies, so I grabbed it.
When I rented it, I remember it was like eleven at night on a weeknight. I was like, “Oh, I'll pop it in and watch it for like 20 minutes and then I'll finish the rest tomorrow.” It grabbed me so fucking hard, and it did not let go until the end. And I remember when I finished the movie, I sat on the couch for an extra 20 minutes just absolutely run over. I've never had that feeling before. I’ve felt that in certain moments of a film, but never a whole film. Because I always look for films to evoke emotion in me more than anything, and this one just rocked me. I was just so bowled over.
Having never heard of it myself, I actually avoided reading too much background on it so that I could go into the movie cold. But as I watched it, I noticed a lot of thematic and tonal similarities to The Wailing, so it wasn’t terribly surprising when I found out that Hong-jin Na directed that film as well. Hong-jin is particularly adept at subverting expectations, and in The Chaser he catches the audience off-guard when the killer is captured within the first act of the film.
This is just brilliant. We're watching this movie at the beginning, and you know that something horrible is happening to these women and you want to find the son of a bitch, and you're like, “Okay, this is the movie. You're going to find this guy.” But within 20 minutes [Joong-ho]’s car slams into the killer, and he suspects that he's the killer. Like, where are we gonna go from here? And he gets arrested in the first 25 minutes of the movie! Can you imagine reading that script? He's arrested... and he tells them what he does, and then they have to prove it!
So the “chase” in this film doesn’t really start until they’ve already caught Young-min, who confesses, but the cops have to find a way to prove it and to find the captive Mi-jin. True to Hong-jin’s sensibilities, there’s an anti-authoritarian streak, as the cops don’t seem to care as much about Mi-jin as they do about saving face after an incident where the mayor was hit with feces by a protester while under their protection detail. As Joong-ho and the cops race against the clock trying to find Mi-jin and some evidence before Young-min has to be released, MacDonald notes that small moments drive the film’s tension.
I think the theme throughout the movie is the “sliding doors” where these little things happen all the time. You need to go left or go right. These little, little things all interconnect and it’s so clever, and it’s so smart. It’s also enough to drive you to a nervous breakdown because you’re like, “Oh my God, if that just happened, those three little things just went that way, then that is what would have happened?” And it drives me nuts... these little things... it just goes on and on.
Ultimately the film becomes a tragedy, as even though Mi-jin escapes, she stumbles into the path of a recently released Young-min, who brutally murders her in a sequence that’s sad not just because of how coincidental it is, but because it represents an utter failure on behalf of the people who should have been protecting her. And Hong-jin dangles the promise of a last-minute intervention from a cop waiting outside only to deliver a gut punch of a murder sequence.
You’re just screaming [to the cop], “Go in!” And I thought, “I can't watch this again!” But as soon as the camera slowed down and the music came in, it was almost surreal, ethereal, and almost ceremonial. It was very strange. For me, my heart sank and I thought, “Holy fuck, now we're beyond a tragedy.” For [season 3 of Slasher] I got inspired by that scene, too. There's a character in Slasher who we've been following for most of the show. And she just can't have this death of just being bludgeoned and cut away. It has to have some horrific poetry to it. It's extremely emotional and brutal, and not just the violence—something deeper. And with [Mi-jin], I remember I was just crying. I watched again last night to prepare for our discussion, and now that I have a kid... when she flashes and sees her kid, I just started crying. But then I think that's what I want for my films. I want to be moved. I want to feel something.
And it’s through that little girl, Eun-ji (Yoo-Jeong Kim) that Hong-jin allows some small slivers of hope to peek through in a film that’s otherwise very bleak. For MacDonald, Joong-ho’s relationship with Eun-ji represents the closest thing to redemption he’ll get in a story where his actions literally destroy a life.
I was rooting for [Joong-ho] to catch the killer, but where I find his story arc so interesting is that at the beginning, on [Mi-jin’s] flip phone, he’s listed as “Filth,” and the little daughter sees that... he really doesn’t really give a shit about [Mi-jin], he just cares about the money... if the film didn’t have the little girl, his character doesn’t work at all. I just love that he becomes a better person at the end, and that’s what you want for all of our characters when you’re watching a movie, or some kind of change. So when he adopted the little girl at the end and holds her hand, you go, “Oh my God, he’s responsible for what happened in many ways, but the little girl is one salvation to make it right.” That’s the only way I can see it, where at first he pushes the little girl away, but at the end is holding her hand—he saves her life. So it’s like one life for the other. He’s going to take care of her for the rest of his life and is becoming a better person, so I root for him to become a better person in the end.
Leading up to this resolution, Hong-jin crafts a series of small, beautiful moments between Joong-ho and Eun-ji. MacDonald explains how Hong-jin uses these moments to force Joong-ho to really see the ramifications of his actions.
[The scene] where he goes and investigates Mi-jin’s house... they find the little girl waiting there alone. She's been around alone for like a day or something at that point, and they tear the place apart looking for evidence. And they're going to leave her there! He’s so dismissive of her because he doesn't want to connect, he just wants to know what’s happened because at this point he thinks the killer is selling his women. It's all about money, that's why he's motivated. But [at the end of the scene] when he slammed the door, you can see there's a glimmer of humanity in him... the glass breaks and falls, and then right in his eyeline is that girl standing alone in the room. Visually it's stunning because he's like, “Well now you're seeing what you're doing.”
And [when we find out that Mi-jin has been murdered we realize] he's going to pay for it for the rest of his life... and it seems like the one glimpse of humanity is in him where he's going to take on the responsibility of his actions, and the daughter is the symbol of that. You say, “Okay, that to me is a silver lining, but it's a silver lining of the darkest kind of cloud.”
In addition to allowing for these tiniest of elements of narrative relief, MacDonald explains that Hong-jin gives the film energy with a dynamic shooting style.
The camera is very athletic, very involved... when [Joong-ho] goes at the beginning of the film, he goes to address the men giving one of the prostitutes trouble. He goes over to set them straight (to get the money not to protect this girl), but he goes there and the camera is behind his shoulder, and it’s an over the shoulder shot and he's talking with these goons, and he goes to slap him. When he slaps him, the camera rushes forward. It's completely reactionary to what's going on, but also so organic, and I love that.
But again, as MacDonald points out, this isn’t a stylized action movie, so the violence isn’t polished. Rather, Hong-jin takes pains to make it play out closer to how it would in real life.
When [Joong-ho] finally comes face to face with the serial killer and they go at it, he's determined to destroy him. When they fight, it's so clumsy and strange and very realistic, and horrific and violent—just nothing Hollywood about it. In many ways that's probably what it would look and feel like. It's so visceral, but that's what I liked about it. That scene, too, inspired a lot of stuff in Slasher, when we did season 3. It's a little clumsy, a little almost unchoreographed. It's messy.
For MacDonald, The Chaser is such a perfect film, one that blends story and technical craftsmanship so beautifully, that he doesn’t see any need for a remake. And as a director, that proposition has more literal ramifications than it would have for most of us.
I actually talked to the person who had the rights to the movie in L.A. I had meetings down there, I was talking with the person who had the rights to make it and no way, man... I don't think it should be remade. I think it's been made and I think people should see it and enjoy it. It would just do a disservice to the film to try to remake it, I believe, because you might want to twist it to be more friendly, or less aggressive or nihilistic. Listen, if I had to [remake the film]... I couldn't do it because it takes away from the whole idea of the kind of film he made, but if I could do anything as a fantasy, she would survive. He'd find her. I want that so badly, I just wanted it so bad.
So that’s just MacDonald as a human being, wanting this woman to survive as any of us would while watching it. But as a filmmaker, he knows that’s not the story being told here. He loves horror films that aren’t afraid to lean into the darkness of the narrative and are willing to forego a happy ending for something real and compelling.
[Wedging in a happy ending] is like somebody saying we're making Backcountry [a film that centers on a bear attack] and saying, “Oh, they killed the bear.” That's not the idea, you know? The point about these movies is that it's not a happy ending. Why does it have to be? It's a horror movie, you can go there. I appreciate that a lot from these films from Parasite to I Saw the Devil to The Chaser, or even some of the J horror stuff. It's unapologetic. No, this is not a happy ending kind of movie. It’s melancholy, it's kind of strange, it's kind of grey, it’s kind of weird [and] might take a moment to let it sink in, but again, this ride we went on, this horrific, visceral ride of The Chaser, in the end, everything we've been through, all the violence, all the brutality, all the stomach-churning events that we went through to get to the end, where this man hopefully [holds the] girl’s hand in the hospital, [and] will be there [for] support is... well, it's poetic.