While the runaway success of Netflix’s Squid Game (2021) no doubt opened up its leading man Lee Jung-jae to a wider audience. However, he has been entertaining fans of South Korean cinema for decades, with him being considered as one of the country’s most successful actors. He has featured in some of South Korea’s biggest films, amongst them the likes of The Thieves (2012), New World (2013) and more recently in Deliver Us From Evil (2020).
Recently Lee has made the decision to go behind the camera, making his directorial debut with Hunt, a viscerally violent action thriller filled with beautifully choreographed action scenes and a bewildering twist filled plot that will have audiences guessing till the end. While some may complain that the plot is overly convoluted, Hunt is an extremely assured debut from Lee with him handling each of the separate elements with considerate skills, all the more impressive considering he also appears in front of the camera with him playing one of the leading roles.
Although the film is fictional, it involves several actual historical events that took place during the early 1980’s which are interwoven throughout the main plot. I have noted some reviewers online implying that knowledge of these events is required, and while this may help, it will not diminish your enjoyment of the film. To be honest, with this being an espionage thriller, even a full knowledge of South Korean history will leave you guessing on what is developing on screen.
Taking place in the early 1980’s, the film opens in New York City just before an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate the South Korean President. The attempt is thwarted by fellow KCIA agents Park Pyong-ho (Lee Jung-jae) and Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung) who are both assigned to root out a mole amongst them who is passing on their plans to the North Koreans.
After a disastrous attempt in Tokyo at extracting a North Korean Nuclear Physicist and his family, it becomes clear that the mole, who is only known as “Donglim”, must be part of Park or Kim’s team. Both of them are separately tasked with investigating the other, but as both of the investigations progress it becomes unclear of where their true allegiances lie and who can truly be trusted.
Not content with only starring and directing, Lee Jung-jae also worked as a producer and contributed to the screenplay. As mentioned, it is an exceptionally well done debut, with Lee’s handling of the on screen carnage being equal to or better than the majority of this year’s Hollywood actioners. All the more impressive considering he would have done it on a fraction of their budget.
Made for roughly $15 million, at no point does Hunt feel like a low budget movie, making me wonder where the hell does all the money go on Hollywood movies where other countries make films of equal quality on what they would put aside for their catering budget.
The quality of the film isn’t all down to Lee. It helps that he has formed a quality team to work behind the camera. The entirety of the film is given a suitably gritty look and feel due to the talents of ace cinematographer Lee Mo-gae. A regular collaborator of director Kim Jee-woon, with him shooting classics like The Good, The Bad and the Weird (2008) and I Saw the Devil (2010), he has recently worked on Emergency Declaration (2021) and Sebok (2021), which I reviewed earlier in the year. His work on Hunt is easily on par with any of those mentioned.
The quality of the action is obviously what sets Hunt apart from similar fare. Lee evenly spaces the action out, with each set piece being larger than the last. Lee employs the talents of action director Daniel Kwanghwee Choi, a member of the Seoul action school.
The action involved is more akin to the more realistic approach to action films of Michael Mann and Ringo Lam take rather than John Woo. The film does ultimately become over the top with its later action scenes, but by that point you will be so invested in the film you probably won’t notice.
The standout set piece is an awesome street based shootout that is clearly inspired by Heat (1995), where Lee Jung-jae tries to save his team from a team of North Korean agents. Brutally violent, with everyone’s weapon of choice being a machine gun, it is a perfect antidote to the PG-13 action that studios prefer to churn out these days.
Admittedly the film does have some small issues. The script does become somewhat convoluted, with the events unfolding becoming harder to believe as the film reaches its finale. However this is overcome with how Lee approaches the material, playing everything straight with no hint of irony.
Some may find issue with the fact that a lot of information is held back about the main characters. This is obviously to create an air of mystery, which it does. While the story unfolds it becomes increasingly unclear of which of the two leads the audience should be invested in. At first it would seem that Lee’s Park is our hero but this becomes murkier the more we get to know about him.
Feelings towards Jung’s Kim are similar, with his character initially seeming as if he will be the villain, but as the film progresses and more is known of his background, it looks as if he and Park are more alike than it would seem. Because of the needs of the plot, there isn’t as much in terms of character development. Even so, both Lee Jung-Jae and Jung Woo-sung give commanding performances, with both working past the limitations of the script.
Admittedly, Lee is given more to chew on, but this isn’t unexpected considering he is the star of the film. His character is the more nervy of the two, with him having more of an emotional investment in the investigation because of his involvement with a teenage North Korean defector which Jung’s Kim starts to use against him.
As well as getting to show off his range of emotions, Lee throws himself into the action. Lee is no stranger to action having appeared in the some of South Korea’s best actioners with the likes of Typhoon (2005), Assassination (2015) and Warriors of the Dawn (2017) amongst them. Out of them, Hunt is one of his more action heavy roles with Lee getting involved in several shootouts and hand to hand fights.
Jung Woo-sung is also no stranger to action films. As well as the previously mentioned The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008), he has more recently starred in Steel Rain (2017) and its sequel as well as a host of other memorable movies. He hasn’t only been confined to South Korean cinema, showing up in a handful of Chinese productions dating back to 1996’s Shanghai Grand then later on to Reign of Assassins (2010) which found him working under action legend John Woo. He doesn’t get to take part in as much action here, but whenever he does manages to impress.
Hunt marks the first time Jung Woo-sung and Lee Jung-jae have appeared on screen since City of the Rising Sun (1998), which makes it all the more memorable. That film led to the two actors becoming lifelong friends, with the two of them co-owning and co-investing in several businesses. Like his friend, Jung also makes his directorial debut this year in the hotly anticipated A Man of Reason (2022). Fingers crossed that it’s on par with what Lee has achieved in Hunt.
The remainder of the cast, including Heo Sung-tae, Jeon Hye-jin and Go Yoon-jung all do well with the screen time they are given even if their characters could be considered as underwritten. In addition to the main cast, Hunt features a series of cameos which entertain. The best of these is a mid-movie appearance from Lee’s Deliver Us From Evil co-star Hwang Jung-min, with Hwang showing in the briefest of screen time why he’s one of South Korea’s highest grossing actors.
Some viewers may be disappointed that Hunt is more of an action movie than spy thriller, but for those looking for a pure adrenaline shot, one that doesn’t shy away in terms of bloodletting, will be in for a terrific time at the movies. It will be interesting to see how Lee Jung-jae follows this up. He already has a busy slate on his hands, with him scheduled to star in the second season of Squid Game as well as headline the new Star Wars show The Acolyte (2023).
Fans of Deliver Us From Evil should also be interested to hear that he will be starring in a prequel series to the film called Ray, focusing on the earlier days of his crazed character Ray Sun. With all this, it’s unclear where he will fit in more directing work, but on the grounds of his work on Hunt I hope it’s not too long.
Plot: 4/5 Acting: 4/5 Action: 4/5 Overall: 4/5