Although a star for nearly 30 years in South Korean films, Lee Jung-Jae recently rocketed to international fame on a whole other level as the star of the television phenomenon, The Squid Game. All of that spotlight will add to interest in Hunt, which he not only stars, produces, co-wrote (with Jo Seung-Hee), but makes his feature film directorial debut, one that just had its World Premiere in the Midnight section of the Cannes Film Festival.
Taking on all these extra jobs can be perilous for an actor on his level but it is easy to see why Hunt, an action-filled, character-driven psychological espionage tale was appealing for the star. First it offers a crackerjack role as Park Pyong-Ho, leader of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Unit, plus a constantly twisting plotline that lends itself not only to several well-executed action set pieces and global intrigue, but also has some pertinent things to say about the danger of misinformation and dictatorships even as it is set in the 1980’s. On top of that it has a classic match up in which two veteran stars get to face off against each other, the second being a terrific Jung Woo-Song as KCIA’s Domestic Unit head Kim Jung-Do assigned to take on an investigation that pits him directly against Pyong-Ho. Both actors are up to the task in this riveting fast moving commercial thriller that, like Squid Game, is in a friendly genre that ought to travel well internationally, as well as in its home country.
The basic set up reveals the existence of a mole known as Donglim in the KCIA, their dangerous leaks causing mayhem for Pyong-Ho who was helping a high profile defector seek asylum until it blew up. Essentially the agency pits the domestic and foreign units against each other in a race to plug the leaks and uncover the identity of the mole. Unfortunately Pyong-Ho becomes suspect number one for Jung-Do, ratcheting up the tension and suspicions between the long time colleagues, and on top of everything else leading to information about a planned assassination attempt of the dictatorial leader of South Korea in a time where the truth was obscured and molded into misinformation and distrust between the two Koreas. Although different from the situation today, Hunt finds some interesting parallels in the dangers of what is now dubbed fake news. It becomes psychological warfare between the pair, with Jung-Do interviewing every associate of Pyong-Ho in an attempt to uncover the real truth, a slippery slope that leads to violence and, fortunately for viewers a lot of edge-of-your-seat action to keep this all from becoming so political your eyes glaze over. Both stars are excellent with three dimensional roles that offer some nifty turns in the story leading to a climax where Director Lee manages to squeeze out every ounce of suspense and importantly, humanity and emotion.
A supporting cast with richly defined roles is also key to making Hunt work. Jeon Hye-Jin as sprightly Agent Ju-Kyung is a great addition as the right hand to Pyong-Ho and she makes the most of her screen time, as does the young woman You-Jung who in a few scenes proves key and is well -played by Go Youn Jung. Heo Sung-Tae also fills the bill nicely as Kim’s henchman of sorts, Agent Cheol-Sung. The technical contributions are aces, particularly cinematographer Lee Mo Gae who finds inventive camera angles to make what might have seemed familiar in the genre quite fresh and inventive in its style.
This is the kind of movie plot about the less said the better, but fortunately the focus is on the characters pitted against each other, rather than the countries themselves and that is crucial to making this time bomb of a movie keep ticking as well as it does over the course of two + hours.
Megabox Plus M, Artist Studio, and Sinai Pictures are the production entities for the film which is up for sale in Cannes.