Hunt is the directorial debut of actor Lee Jung-jae, the star of Netflix’s #1 show Squid Game. The film sees Lee take a stab at being a jack of all trades as the star, director, writer, and producer of this spy-action-thriller. Set in early 1980s Korea, the film reveals a country that is locked into conflict on all sides. The presidential government is trying to repress the student protesters and people’s groups trying take it down from within its own borders while also dealing with impending threats of assassination and attack North Korean forces across the border. The people under the most pressure in the constantly lapsing conflict? The KCIA who employ of our two main characters Park Pyung-ho (Lee Jung-jae) Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung). The opening scene introduces us to them as the KCIA foils shooters attempting an assassination of the Korean president on American soil. This is where we see the KCIA also has conflict in its ranks as the operation to take out the shooters reveals the starting tensions between the KCIA’s foreign and domestic units which are led by our two leads Pyung-ho and Jung-do. As the films goes on, Pyung-ho and Jung-do keep folding each other into a labyrinth of mistrust. A mistrust planted from the looming threat of a North Korean mole in their ranks. A mole who the director of the KCIA sees fit that the foreign and domestic units find by interrogating their peers, leading to an inevitable vendetta.
Hunt isn’t satisfied in simply pitting two colleagues against one another as Lee along with his co-writer Jo Seung-hee elevate the action-thriller by layering the secrets and lies. This allows Lee to explore multiple facets of the complicated South Korean government and its internal conflict. A division that may have presented the North’s chance to take more power over the weakened southern democracy. Lee is one of many Korean directors who’ve taken the conflicts of Korean past and coated it in genre to entertain audience while educating them about Korean conflict. In this case, he uses the twists and turns of a mystery spy thriller to keep the audience confused and guessing about where the films going by disguising his characters motivations to orchestrate how convoluted a domestic espionage situation like this really becomes. To add an emotional layer to his leads he weaves more characters and background information into the spy story and tries to reveal the moral complications of domestic security. Pyung-ho took on the responsibility to take care of the daughter of his late KCIA partner, a responsibility that becomes evermore complicated with her involvement in student protests the government he works for and mysterious past. Jung-do made connections in the military with characters who are revealed to be involved in the expanding the web of deceit Lee weaves in his ambitious screenplay.
Lee has clearly studied his filmmaking influences well. He can bring inspiration to the standard professional action flick with the help of his veteran Korean craftsmen. His use of long takes and swinging camera movement becomes invocative of Children of Men, a film Lee surely studied before heading to production on his filmmaking debut. The film’s editing done by Korean veteran Kim Sang-bum whose edited notable films from Park Chan-wook like Oldboy and The Handmaiden is purposefully crafted to the story and action. At 131 minutes though, the film can only create so much feeling out of its thrilling actions sequences and the story isn’t enough to carry the emotional weight Lee seems to be going for. He shows he can bring inspiration to his material an get the best out of his actors including himself. The first scene alone showcases the direction and action at its heights with well coordinated gun play, editing and intense emotions from Lee and Jung create an effective hook. But with how much maneuvering and set up the story does with its ensemble of characters it can be hard to follow the emotional throughline especially when we’re following two leads. There is an intelligent attempt to set up Pyung-ho’s emotional world with the inclusion of a sudo daughter character who is slotted into the story well but the connection between these two isn’t given enough screentime because of the impending need to inform the audience about the evolving spy plot. Lee shows he has room to grow as a director as some of the choices will come off as unfitting at some points in the film. Some of the visual effects are very transparent and the use of music in some parts seems to not fit the tone of the scene.
Hunt knows its strengths lie in the intrigue of political espionage and the violence that erupts because of it. However, in the maze of guns and deception, the hearts of the characters are lost. For the most part, this isn’t a big deal but Lee commits a fair amount of runtime to try to get us to feel something. This film doesn’t commit to the simplicity action films like The Raid: Redemption havetaken where they don’t even try to characterize the people in their dangerous scenario, nor does it use the emotions to motivate its action like in this year’s Top Gun Maverick. The result is a film that tries to balance both and doesn’t really succeed. Lee admirably takes time to focus in on how the struggle to find the truth takes a heavy toll on the emotional core of its leading men but ends up loosing it in the process. In other words, Hunt needed less lies and more love but I appreciate that Lee tried to include both in the first place.
Hunt is now playing in theatres.