This film, set in South Korea during the turbulent 1980s and ’90s, draws on real events from that time, including a presidential assassination
The director, Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae, throws everything at this story, but it comes across as confused and messy
Hunt will be remembered for a film which would count history junkies and hardcore action-movie fans as its aficionados. Only them, that is: everybody else would probably find South Korean actor and Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae’s espionage thriller excessively bombastic and muddled.
Serving as his own producer and top-billing star, Lee seems hell-bent in throwing all the historical references, deafening pyrotechnics or narrative twists he could get onto the screen and seeing what will stick.
Sadly, not much does. Hunt is eventually brought down by its messy storytelling, which would confuse international audiences – such as those who watched the film at the Cannes Film Festival last week – without a basic understanding of the South Korean political situation in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the film is set.
Lee plays Park Pyung-ho, a top-ranking officer at the Korea Central Intelligence Services. After a botched attempt to bring in a defecting North Korean nuclear scientist, Park’s team is suspected of being infiltrated by a Pyongyang-sent mole. Once wielding unchecked powers within the agency, he finds himself investigated by his nemesis, the soldier-turned-spy Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung)
True to the state of things in South Korea in the early ’80s, a period notorious for military dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s bloody repression of dissent and internal purges within his ranks, Park is in turn ordered to investigate Kim’s team. Both men soon charge at each other in gusto, with nearly every row between them ending up as a man-on-man fight or mass brawl.
The whole thing spirals further when it emerges there’s a bigger “hunt” going on, with the subject being the president himself. Through flashbacks and scenes depicting the people they meet on the sly while off duty, we slowly get to see both men actually following their own agendas, wishing to protect the country by saving its spirit rather than its horrendous head-of-state.
Drawn from various real-life historical incidents – such as the assassination of authoritarian ruler Park Chung-hee by his own spymaster in 1979, and attempts on Chun’s life in Burma in 1983 – Hunt is just the latest in a long line of films seeking to readdress that particular traumatic period of South Korean history. What might things have been like, Lee seems to want to ask, if people fulfilled their duty and did the right thing regardless of the perils that entails?
But what film-goers would like to ask is probably how Hunt would have turned out if Lee allowed a more qualified screenwriter to finesse a script which would make less sound and more sense. As it stands, Hunt is more a vanity project than a full-formed product from a veteran player.