Synopsis: After a high-ranking North Korean official requests asylum, KCIA Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho and Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do are tasked with uncovering a North Korean spy deeply embedded within their agency. When the spy begins leaking top secret intel that could jeopardize national security, the two units are each assigned to investigate each other.
Stars: Lee Jung Jae, Jeon Hye Jin, Heo Sung Tae, Go Youn Jung, Kim Jong Soo, Jung Man Sik, Jung Woo-Sung
Director: Lee Jung Jae
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Hunt is a complex spy thriller that runs over two hours but took me almost twice as long to finish. Why? I had to go back and watch long stretches of it more than once because the screenplay by director/star Lee Jung-Jae is a tricky knot to unravel. Usually, this would be a ball of string I would happily follow up with and stick with until I’d untangled it. However, at a certain point in Hunt, I realized it was making no effort to engage with the viewer. That’s when it all felt like a pointless exercise in running behind a locomotive that sold me a ticket but never intended to let me ride.
A long-gestating project for Lee, it’s the age-old tale of two men competing to ferret out a mole within their institution. Of course, they both suspect the other, and we spend much of the film flip-flopping our allegiance between them. If Hunt were simply this story, it might have been seen as another standard entry into the espionage genre…but it would have maintained a biting crackle that gets snuffed out the moment historical Korean politics gets layered in.
For American audiences unfamiliar with the history of the military dictatorship that existed in Korea during the 1980s, Hunt will likely be a frustrating journey through a truncated timeline only partially explained. This is due to the balancing of the thriller element, and because, after the rough showing the film had in Cannes, the filmmakers returned and re-edited the film to make it easier to understand. The result of that tinkering weakens everything because now the focus is quite prominently on a chronicling of events for our education instead of our entertainment.
Rising to international acclaim with his role in overnight sensation Squid Game, Lee was already an established star in South Korea, but Hunt serves as his feature film debut for most of the audiences that took to him on the popular Netflix show. Admittedly, I haven’t made my way to that streaming phenomenon, but I have witnessed the acclaim lauded on the actor. While his passion for the material is evident from a filmmaking perspective, his performance is stiff and unconvincing.
Between Hunt and Decision to Leave, my ordinarily strong feelings toward South Korean cinema took a significant hit in 2022. I appreciate what Lee was going for and recognize compromises were made to bring this movie to U.S. shores, but sometimes you have to let a film stand on its own and allow the viewers to embrace it or not. When you cast the net wide so clumsily, there’s nothing to grab onto.