A few ways to cut in line at Cannes: Get there late and drift in with the crowd at the front, looking lost or bewildered. Pretend to only be walking over to get a magazine off the table conveniently by the theater entrance, then glide in through the doors. Shove. Most often, though, someone will just wriggle into a line near the front, and then stoically pretend not to understand the people standing nearby telling him or her to fuck off in various languages. There’s a lot of press at the festival, divided into the strata of white, pink with a dot, pink without a dot, blue and yellow, and trying to get into screenings can be a brutal game. The other morning’s screening of Jia Zhang-ke’s “24 City” was preceded by a struggle resembling a meat run in the supermarket of a crumbling Eastern Bloc country, and when the doors closed and the smoke cleared I was still outside. Instead, I headed to Na Hong-jin’s “The Chaser,” a thriller about a serial killer and missing prostitutes that’s cruel in a way that’s pretty much unique to South Korean cinema. The antihero, with extra dashes of “anti,” is Joong-ho, a disgraced cop now running a call girl ring that’s faltering because two girls have, he believes, run away. He presses another into service despite her being sick, and the client she goes to meet turns out to be a boyish, handsome serial killer (“Time”‘s Ha Jung-woo) who’s got the corpses of her compatriots stored in the basement and buried in the backyard.
“The Chaser” overturns genre conventions like tables in a saloon brawl for one, the killer’s nabbed in the first half of the film and, unprompted, quickly confesses. Most of the suspense comes from whether or not the astronomically incompetent police force will be able to come up with evidence to actually arrest him since he was brought in without a warrant, they have to prove he did the things he claims within 12 hours, or he walks. “The Chaser”‘s condemnation of the police makes 2005’s “Memories of Murder” look marshmallow soft its cops are lazy, careless, quick-tempered, deaf to what they don’t want to hear, more concerned with image than with results and therefore always in search of a way to shift blame. They ignore the killer’s inconvenient claim that one of the girls may still be alive, and achieve a sense of urgency only when it becomes clear that they have to close the case in order to take attention off the fact that earlier in the evening they allowed a protester to throw shit at the mayor during a public appearance. Joong-ho, carrying out his own more violent, though only slightly more competent, investigation, has the more compelling motivation of money to be retrieved, though he also prefers to believe that the girls were merely sold until the disturbing evidence otherwise becomes impossible to ignore.
From all of this, first-time director Na teases out some pitch-dark comedy that’s made even more uncomfortable by the fact that we, at least, know there is a victim in dire need of rescue. But there’s an unexpected third-act incident of such brutality that I was knocked clear out of the film. For all of “The Chaser”‘s bracingly unforgiving views on law enforcement and on life in the city in general, the development I’ll let you guess at pushes too far and too hard; it wasn’t necessary, merely manipulative. There are plenty of others who haven’t minded, though the film’s this year’s biggest success to date at the Korean box office, and it’s in line for a U.S. remake.
[Photo: “The Chaser,” Fine Cut Films, 2008]
+ “The Chaser” (Festival-Cannes.fr)