Squid Game’s Lee Jung-Jae directs and stars in an edge-of-your-seat debut
Hunt is a fictionalized account of South Korean political turmoil linking a series of real-life North Korean defections and a disastrous assassination attempt involving the demolition of a Thai temple during the visit of South Korean President-Dictator Chun Doo-Hwan. Park Pyung-Ho (Lee Jung-Jae), chief of the Foreign Agent section of the KCIA, is mired in thrilling, life-threatening spycraft as he tries to unmask a North Korean mole dispatched to foil undercover ops as well as assassinate the President. Park’s colleague and rival, Kim Jung-Do (Jung Woo-Sung), is the head of Domestic Affairs and is dead set on exposing the same mole…who Kim believes has infiltrated Park’s unit. The two engage in a cat-and-mouse affair on a global scale, set against the backdrop of South Korea’s pro-Democracy riots in the early 1980s.
Beginning with a Tenet-esque sequence in and out of a theater in the heart of Washington, DC, Hunt plunges audiences into a late Cold War world of snipers, spies, and bloody double-crosses. Drawing from a wide-ranging history of action and procedural films ranging from Heat to Infernal Affairs to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Lee’s debut film breathlessly shifts between expansive and claustrophobic action. Amidst these rapid-fire scenes are dense moments rooted in the intricacies of North/South Korean political relations, scenes that benefit from a more nuanced understanding of decades of geopolitical conflict but successfully land due to the emotional stakes Lee establishes for his central rivals.
Park and Kim’s world of dueling intelligence agencies, while rooted in bureaucracy, is one that isn’t afraid to come to physical blows. On more than one occasion, these two teams clash in cramped hallways to either blockade or seize evidence like adult manifestations of childhood’s Capture the Flag. Their rival leaders (played by Lee and Jung), are equally magnetic leads, whose rivalry contains as many individual venomous secrets as they do in enacting deadly plots against one another. Park was a victim of his government’s state-sanctioned torture but is now wholly complicit in it to not only prevent the bloodshed of millions but to also further dreams of eventually reunifying his split country. Kim, on the other hand, has extensive links to the South’s military ties; while striving for peace, he recognizes how profitable continued war can be. More so than his rival, Park bears the brunt of his government’s brutality and is frequently foiled and frustrated by how Kim and higher powers (including outside Western governments) want to maintain the bloody status quo.
Where Hunt unites the personal and political, though, is where Lee elevates his debut film beyond the majority of action epics. Park finds himself connected to the pro-Democracy riots his government pushes to suppress through an enigmatic young woman. Yoo-Jeong (Go Yoon-Jung) is a college student swept up in the student riots–who Park also finds himself bailing out in a sense of bloody obligation to Yoo-Jeong whose circumstances become tragically clear. Throughout, there’s no facet of Park and Kim’s lives that isn’t touched by the Korean War–including their own bitter friendship. Park was once tortured, sure–but Kim was the one doing the torture. The two men acknowledge the newly shifted balance of power between them, and even more so how tenuous this new reality is. However, both begrudgingly admit they share the same short and long-term goals. Both are tasked with finding North Korean spy Donglim within their ranks–but both also dream of a future that ends decades of suffering. The true question that Hunt poses, though, is how far each is willing to go in being complicit with the corruption of law and order if the end goal is peace and safety.
Their current rivalry speaks to long fomenting unrest during that era between many in South Korea, where desires to remain free and democratic were increasingly at odds with the ability to lead unassuming lives. One’s freedom is paid for at the cost of one’s complicity, a Faustian bargain that both men face with disturbing choices in order to pay their debts.
The consequences are dazzling displays of gunfire and backroom brutality, which Lee manages to capture at both blockbuster scale and intimate insidiousness. Visual and practical effects are blended seamlessly, with a premium placed on roving yet shake-free cameras, which are laser-focused on the immediate peril of the actors rather than whatever explosions may distract another debut director’s eye. The result is an operatic thriller whose consequences aren’t just felt between the leads, but potentially by millions of people between North and South Korea that Park and Kim are allegedly sworn to protect.
While he may be more familiar to Western audiences fresh off of his Emmy-winning turn in Squid Game, Hunt establishes Lee Jung-Jae as a bona fide action director and star. Hunt is a jaw-dropping, relentlessly-paced thriller, full of gripping tension, thought-provoking political intrigue, and edge-of-your-seat action set pieces.
Hunt had its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2022. A theatrical release by Magnet Releasing is planned for December 2nd, 2022.