Director: Lee Jung-Jae
Cast: Lee Jung-Jae, Jung Woo-Sung, Jeon Hye-jin, Heo Sung-tae, Ko Yoon-Jung, Kim Jong-Soo, Jeong Man-Sik, Lim Hyung-Guk, Jung Kyung-Soon
Running Time: 130 min.
By Paul Bramhall
As a leading man Lee Jung-jae has been a consistent presence in the Korean film industry ever since his debut with The Young Man in 1994 at 21 years old. While many actors harbour a curiosity to direct, it’s still a rarity to make the transition from in front of the camera to behind it, and even more so for those who attempt to have the best of both worlds. However after the surprising success of the 2021 Netflix series Squid Game, which Jung-jae headlined, he probably thought it was now or never if he was ever going to take a crack at sitting in the director’s chair. The result would be Hunt, an action laced spy thriller set during the tumultuous year of 1983.
Also appearing as co-lead, Jung-jae shares top billing with his long-time friend Jung Woo-sung. Another actor who made his debut with a leading role in 1994 aged 21 (The Fox with Nine Tails), Jung-jae and Woo-sung would cross paths when they were cast as co-leads in Kim Seung-su’s gritty drama City of the Rising Sun in 1999. Despite both maintaining their leading man status in the subsequent years, Hunt is only the sophomore pairing of Jung-jae and Woo-sung onscreen, here reuniting for the first time in 23 years.
The story uses the real-life backdrop of the assassination attempt that was made on military dictator Chun Doo-hwan in 1983, who at that point had been in power for over 3 years following a coup in 1979 (the narrative takes the liberty of changing the setting of Rangoon in Burma where the actual event took place, to Bangkok in Thailand). Jung-jae and Woo-sung play members of the notorious KCIA (Korean Central Intelligence Agency), with Jung-jae playing the head of the Foreign Unit, while Woo-sung plays the head of the Domestic Unit. Both are required to sign off on any of the presidents planned movements, so when an assassination attempt is narrowly averted during a presidential visit to Washington, combined with the death of a high level North Korean official looking to defect, the higher ups begin to suspect a mole in the ranks.
Already weary of each other, when each of them is ordered separately to start looking into the other, tensions begin to boil over, and it gradually becomes clear nobody can be trusted. Jung-jae certainly can’t be accused of going the easy route for his directorial debut, helming a 130-minute epic that crams in so many double crosses and twists it puts the average spy thriller to shame. What’s more surprising though is that he handles the material with a deft hand, belying the fact that we’re watching the work of a first-time director. While on paper Hunt may sound like a poker-faced retelling of recent Korean history along the lines of The Man Standing Next or 12. 12: The Day, onscreen it’s clear that Jung-jae is using the historical background as a means to cultivate his own directorial style.
There’s a certain underlying macho pulpiness to the narrative, with characters running around with huge semi-automatic assault rifles even when they’re intending to be discreet, a decision which seems based for the most part on the fact that watching sharply dressed government agents wielding big guns looks cool. It’s hard to disagree, none more so than when a Heat-esque shootout unfolds on the streets of Tokyo, the result of Jung-jae and his team’s retrieval of the previously mentioned North Korean official going horribly wrong. Indeed Jung-jae’s directorial leanings would seem to show a fondness for the action genre, one which can be seen in his own performances dating back to 1996’s Fire Bird through to more recent productions like 2020’s Deliver Us from Evil.
It’s hard to imagine a similar story under a different director containing a scene where the 2 protagonists have a heated meeting in their superior’s office, only for it to end with them leaving the office and breaking out into a brawl with fists being thrown and bodies tumbling down the stairs. Some may feel that it’s a gratuitous piece of fan service having Jung-jae and Woo-sung go at each other in such circumstances, but the fact that such scenarios are played out without any sense of irony or winks at the audience somehow makes them work. There’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing a production which is able to find a balance between its thriller elements and action beats, and one that feels like it’s been missing in Korean cinema since productions like Assassination and The Berlin File, so to see Jung-jae get it right feels like it should be applauded.
It should be noted that fans of Korean cinema will almost certainly get a kick out of the number of familiar faces who are onboard, no doubt to offer their support to Jung-jae’s first time in the director’s chair. The likes of Hwang Jung-min (A Violent Prosecutor), Lee Sung-min (The 8th Night), Park Sung-woong (The Shameless) and Jo Woo-jin (Kingmaker) all clock in cameos of varying screen time, making it an entertaining watch to see who’ll pop up next. At the heart of Hunt though is the relationship between Jung-jae and Woo-sung, and they’re both given well fleshed out roles to get their teeth into. Jung-jae’s character gradually reveals a jaded side having been a part of the KCIA for over a decade, while Woo-sung’s character is riddled with an underlying remorse from his time serving in the military, during which he was part of the unit that were ordered to supress the Gwangju Massacre.
Their characters backgrounds are significant, as ultimately they become a critical part of where their allegiances lie in the present, all of which culminates in the last Bangkok set reel that sees the pair on high alert during the presidential visit. Jung-jae opts for an action-packed finale, as agents from the North and South, assassins, and local police all convene for a bloody shootout that’s captured with a sense of franticness which brings you right into the chaos and confusion. The only disappointing part is that, having relied on practical effects with minimum CGI so far (and what is present is used to compliment the action, not replace it), the sequence ends with a blatantly obvious CGI explosion that’s instantly regrettable. I wish Jung-jae had chosen another way to wrap things up with a bang that could have been done practically, but as it is the scene betrays the gritty and grounded nature that Hunt has established thus far.
Thankfully the faux pas isn’t enough to undo the goodwill towards Jung-jae’s directorial debut, and while the twisty turny script may sometimes threaten to go off the rails, it doesn’t thanks largely to his decision to imbue both the direction and the acting performance with an intensity that engages from the first scene. The only caveat is that once you’re onboard it’s not possible to get off until the credits roll, as the double and triple crosses require the viewers full attention. However the payoff is arguably worth it, presenting a closing scene which could be interpreted as either ruthlessly nihilistic, or as an opportunity to seize a ray of hope and start afresh.
It may have taken him until he was almost 50 to try his hand at directing, but with Hunt Lee Jung-jae has proven that he’s a talent that’s worth paying attention to behind the camera just as much as he is one in front of it. Crafting a tale that feels one part pulpy 70’s spy thriller, one part 90’s Michael Mann flick, with echoes of the heroic bloodshed tropes and themes of brotherhood that define John Woo’s best work, Hunt proves to be a welcome surprise, and easily one of the most entertaining Korean movies of the 2020’s.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 8/10