It’s hard out here for a pimp.
It is nighttime in the city of Seoul. A young woman is talking on her phone while driving on a busy city street. She parks, gets out, and looks around. A young man approaches her; it was apparently him on the other end of the call. They both get into her car and she drives off. The streets get narrower, the traffic gets sparser, the lights become fewer, and the crowds eventually disappear as they make their way to the Mangwon neighborhood of Seoul’s Mapo district. She parks on a quiet hill by a bunch of other empty cars and dark houses, with no one else in sight. He guides her as they walk further up the hill. And then they are gone.
If anyone in the audience still thought that this was a Valentine’s Day movie…well…
It is a rainy day. Most of the other cars have disappeared, but hers is still there. A pair of police officers notice the car and contact the owner. His name is Eom Joong-ho, and he is a pimp. A pimp in financial trouble. This is the second call-girl who has run away and he had put a big advance on them.
The next night, a call-girl named Seong-hee tries to walk out on a client after finding out that he tried to film their session. When the client gets violent, Joong-ho arrives as quickly as he can. He smacks the man around a bit and then demands payment. Seong-hee tells Joong-ho that she will be quitting for real. Then she sees that Joong-ho has found the car…what about the other women? She asks if he told the police about the other women, which he dismisses as crazy. Report his runaway call-girls? Seong-hee is convinced that they did not run away. And even if they did, she argues that Joong-ho used to be a detective, and should use his detective skills to find them. But he is still hung up on the money that he lost from their advances, as well as his compromised street clout. Seong-hee has had enough of his heartlessness and leaves.
Joong-ho’s underling Oh-jot calls him about a picky client who has been rejecting all of the other call-girls. Joong-ho tells him to arrange for Kim Mi-jin, not caring that she is home with a cold. Sure enough, Mi-jin is resting in her apartment while her 8-year-old daughter Eun-ji tries to take care of her. Joong-ho calls her, and orders her to get to work, dismissing her claim that she has a cold in the middle of summer.
In the car Joong-ho finds a phone from one of his call-girls whom he assumed had run away. At the office, he goes through the call log and finds the most recent unknown number. He recognizes it from his records. Oh-jot does as well: the guy who was the client for the other call-girl who had run away. He is the guy whom Mi-jin is seeing right now. She is going to Mangwon, the same neighborhood where the other women had disappeared. Joong-ho is certain that this client must have sold them off. He calls up Mi-jin while she is still driving and tells her to memorize the man’s address when she gets there, then text the address from his bathroom. Joong-ho takes a pair of handcuffs and leaves, once again dismissing a suggestion to contact the police, this time from Oh-jot.
Joong-ho calls up an old acquaintance. Detective Lee is in a police van with a few other detectives, watching over the mayor as he visits a market in the middle of the night. It turns out that he HAD told Detective Lee about the women running away. And apparently, nothing came of it. Now, he tells Lee that they have been sold and that he is going to catch the guy responsible. This call, however, provides enough of a distraction that Lee does not notice a man tussling with the mayor’s bodyguards and hitting the mayor in the face with…uh…stuff that you would not want anywhere near your face. Lee and the other detectives run out of the van to arrest the attacker. So Lee is not going to be helping Joong-ho.
Mi-jin and the client arrive at his house and the client fumbles with his keys, looking for the one for the front gate. He finds the right key and they go inside. She leaves the gate slightly open while he walks to the house. The client is met by his dog, who barks at him before he jumps at it, so it goes back to wandering around the lawn…near a shovel. Mi-jin and the client go inside. The client sits down in the living room, not even looking at Mi-jin. She tells him that she needs to shower first and he casually points to the bathroom. She turns on the shower and texts the address to Joong-ho, but it fails to go through. It is then that she notices a clump of hair in the corner of the tub. There is blood on it. She tries to trick the client into letting her out of the house, only to find that he had padlocked the door.
Joong-ho had been parked behind Mi-jin’s car for several minutes and he had been waiting for her call or text. Finally, he tries to contact her, only to find that the connection does not work. He gets out and starts wandering around, first on foot and then back to his car.
Joong-ho does not know that the client has Mi-jin bound and gagged in the bathroom, terrorizing her with tools and tales of her former co-worker. He tries to kill her, but she squirms around enough that he keeps messing up and even hurts his hand.
The doorbell rings. Two people are at the gate asking if Mr. Park is home, as he had not come to church lately. The client says that no one by that name lives here and tries to get them to leave. Then the couple see the dog, whom they recognize. They are about to leave when the client tells him that Mr. Park is sleeping and invites them inside. Once inside, he goes for his bag of tools and attacks the couple.
The client takes the couple’s car and drives it away. He tries to park it on another street but accidentally its another car. It is Joong-ho’s car. Not knowing who he is, Joong-ho goes over to the client and curtly asks for his number so that insurance can take care of this. The client pretends to ignore him. They have a bit of a back and forth until Joong-ho figures out that this is the client and calls the number. The phone in the client’s pocket rings.
The client bolts out of the car and Joong-ho chases him through the streets of Mangwon. Down alleys, up stairs. It takes a while, but Joong-ho catches up to the client and beats him badly. He asks him where the women are and whether he sold them already. He takes out the client’s wallet and looks at his ID card. The client’s name is Je Young-min, but it says that he lives in Anyang, which is at least seven miles away from where they are now. Young-min refuses to tell Joong-ho where he is staying, so Joong-ho hits him a few more times before cuffing him and taking him back to the car only to find a traffic jam and a police officer who takes them both to the station.
So, they get to the Mapo District police station and Joong-ho, handcuffed to the arm of a seat, tries in vain to contact Detective Lee. Meanwhile, Young-min is writing an incident report. Joong-ho keeps protesting that Young-min had sold call-girls, but the cops are more upset at Joong-ho for impersonating a police officer. One of the cops finally asks Young-min if he had sold the women, and Young-min asks if he is crazy. Another cop eventually gets suspicious of Young-min and prods him about details that Young-min cannot provide. He asks Young-min more seriously if he sold the girls. Young-min denies it once again, then cheekily chuckles and mutters under his breath that he killed them. The officer hears that and asks him if he actually said that. Young-min confirms it clearly and assertively.
Well, that’s it, then. Killer confesses. End of movie. Nope. We are a third of the way through.
Detective Lee and his crew have finally (how many hours have passed?) caught the man who attacked the mayor and have put him in their police van. Well, actually, it is only him and Detective Oh; the rest went to the hospital. They are driving the man to their own station when Lee finally notices his phone ringing. Joong-ho tells him that he caught the guy and the guy has confessed to nine murders. Lee asks Oh about the three murders in Mapo-gu. She tells him that they all happened in Mangwon-dong. Why?
They go at the Mapo-gu station to take Young-min, which leads to a shouting match with the Mapo-gu cops. It gets so heated that the Chief of Police has to come to stop the shouting match. He looks at Young-min and asks who beat him up. Young-min does not really answer, but sort of looks at the cops. One of them tries to protest that they did not do that to him before the Chief shuts him up. He tells Young-min to go outside with Lee and Oh. He orders that Lee and Oh find out who hit Young-min and then bring him in.
Lee asks Young-min who hit him. Young-min looks at the just-now-freed Joong-ho, who tries to assault him again. Lee intervenes as Oh puts Young-min in the police van across from the man who had attacked the mayor. Lee tells Joong-ho to come to their office and then he leaves. Joong-ho, though, is more interested in the car that Young-min had been driving. Apparently, no one had properly searched it yet or they would have found what he found: the set of keys.
Joong-ho is not going to the office just yet. After finding what seems like a lead, he tells Oh-jot to come over. He gives Oh-jot the keys and tells him to go up the street where Min-ji had parked her car to look for houses that have basements and where the phone does not work. Oh-jot asks once again why he does not report it. This time, Joong-ho tells him that the police already know, but does not tell him that the police are probably looking in the wrong place, instead just yelling at him to do what he is told.
Now Joong-ho goes to the police station, where he is told that the police will need a prosecutor’s approval to hold Young-min within the next 12 hours, since they had arrested him without a warrant. Of course, several hours have probably already passed. Young-min describes his process in an offhand matter, like it is so routine that he barely thinks about it. When Lee asks him where he buries the bodies, however, he gets rather vague. Lee scoffs at the notion that Young-min would have buried all nine bodies in his yard. Young-min takes issue with that. It was twelve bodies.
Joong-ho tries to get the task force to search Mangwon, annoyed that they want him to guide them to Mi-jin’s home so that they can get DNA samples before he can go free. He still thinks that Young-min is playing crazy, and just has Mi-jin locked up somewhere. Well, he has to go with the guy to her place anyways, driving ahead of the van. And he has to take directions from someone else (I am guessing Oh-jot) over the phone, since he does not know where she lives either. He goes with the DNA tester to the downstairs apartment. When no one immediately answers, Joong-ho breaks the glass on the door, only to see Eun-ji’s daughter on the phone with the police. Joong-ho has no idea who she is, but using the detective skill of looking at photographs, he deduces that she is Mi-jin’s daughter. He tries to get her to go away and stop asking questions as the officer collects samples. Finally, the officer is done and gives her his business card, much more polite towards her than Joong-ho was. Then the officer leaves and Joong-ho follows him. But closing the door results in more glass falling. He looks at Mi-jin’s daughter through the broken door. He may be an utter scumbag, but he cannot just leave her alone like this can he?
This movie opened on VALENTINE’S DAY WEEKEND. Why? Did something think that the title referred to chasing one’s heart? Did they think that it was about a pimp who changed his ways? In any case, it was number 2 at the South Korean box office after…Jumper. Yes, the Goyer movie with Hayden Christensen. Why? South Korea makes its fair share of romance movies and Valentine’s Day is a thing there. And then it was number 1 for the next three weeks. Why? Surely, it was not because of the director’s clout, since this was his first feature-length film. So why? Why was there so much buzz that there was even talks of an American remake with Leonardo DiCaprio? Why?
Because the movie is that good.
The premise of this movie seems simple enough: a pimp tracks down a serial killer. That could be the plot to many a cool and lurid film. But this is not that, not really. It is not gritty or edgy; it is just messy and exhausting. Moments of humor are brief and not really replicable. No one is glamorous, no one is cool. No one gets a big monologue or even a clever one-liner. They are just messy and exhausted. They are people simply trying to make it through to the next day. The audience is not asked to sympathize with the characters or even like them, just to see them as they are.
While the movie does want the audience to side with the protagonist in his fight against a serial killer, it has no interest in making him seem like an admirable guy at all. For one thing, he is a pimp. And not a stylish one, but one in debt. He is kind of a sad sack, not respected, feared, or liked. He goes on this quest not to rescue damsels in distress, but to mitigate the financial loss that he has already incurred through their loss. After finally deciding that the missing call-girls did not run away, he convinces himself that Young-min has sold them and refuses to believe that he is a serial killer even after most other characters have come to that conclusion. Even if he had been right, he does not make a true effort to search for the missing call-girls until he sees that phone number. A simple search through his records would have turned that number up long ago. Some detective. And just as the movie frequently points out his prioritizing his concern for the money over the safety of the call-girls, there are several reminders that he was the one who put Min-ji in danger in the first place.
Young-min is not a particularly memorable serial killer character, but he is not really meant to be. He is just a guy. Maybe slightly more handsome than most, but he has almost no presence. He is a charisma-free, charmless, blank nothing. He has no special tics, no special costume. He is awkward and deadfaced. His wandering mind does more to draw suspicion to him than throw off questions. Really, he is kind of boring. And that is fine, because the important thing is not what he is like, but what he does. Not how he does it, but what he does. He kills people, primarily women.
Work is work. Terrible, disrespected, thankless, dangerous. For the call-girls, this is a job. A cruddy job at times, maybe, but one that they do for reasons that are none of anyone’s business. They get little safety net; when they need help, their only backup is Joong-ho, who threatens them when he does not neglect them. Boss sends you to an absolute degenerate? Boss puts you in harm’s way without telling you the risks? Boss makes you work even though you are sick? No wonder he assumes that they had run away, why wouldn’t they want to? No one cares for them, certainly not the police.
The police just need a win, especially Joong-ho’s former task force, who are in hot water after the PR debacle with the mayor. They do not really have the public’s trust and few seem deserving of that trust. It is implied that Joong-ho was thrown under the bus to keep the heat off of other corrupt cops. They are not saints or villains, just people doing work that they would rather not do.
This anti-glamorous take on the characters extends to the rest of the movie for the most part. For sure the movie itself is polished and stylish, but the content of the movie is not. Just as the dialog is simple and without frills, the action is clumsy and seemingly unchoreographed. It can be brutal, but is rarely flashy or gratuitous. From little things like a slap to the foot chases to the fights, they are presented realistically. Not necessarily accurately, but how it seems real people would behave. No one is superpowered. Everyone gets tired, stressed, winded. Even the serial killer is sloppy. Characters gain the upper hand through sheer luck and lose it again. And people make mistakes, small and big.
The sense of realism is what draws audiences to the characters and the stories. The first-time director is confident enough to use this investment to toy with the viewers and frustrate them. The characters often exercise bad judgment, not out of stupidity, but out of a lack of sufficient information, bad information, or information that they cannot accept. Sometimes they suffer for it; sometimes others suffer instead. The audience may not get all of the necessary information before the characters do, but they get enough early on to be in suspense, wondering whether the characters will figure things out in time. And the answer is just as often no as it is yes. There is one particular sequence that may stick out for most viewers where everyone seems to be doing the wrong thing at just the right time, not for how good it is, but how frustrating it is. They want to shout at the screen like they are watching a slasher movie. But in a world of brutal consequences, sometimes one more bad decision on someone else’s part is all it takes.
What could have been a run-of-the-mill pulp-fest turns out to be a breath of fresh air. If you think that you can breathe it in, then give it a shot.
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