Movie Review ~ Hunt (2022)

The Facts:

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
Rated: R
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
ReviewHunt 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.

Movie Review ~ Beasts Clawing at Straws


The Facts

Synopsis: A Louis Vuitton bag stuffed full of cash sends a group of hard-luck lowlifes on a desperate chase for fortune. Fish-mongering gangsters, a greasy cop, an “innocent” gym cleaner, a scheming prostitute, her wife beater of a husband, her ruthless boss and her clueless boyfriend all violently plot to get their hands on the elusive bag.

Stars: Jeon Do-yeon, Jung Woo-sung, Bae Sung-woo , Yun Yuh-jung, Jung Man-sik, Jin Gyeong, Shin Hyun-been, Kim Jun-han, Jung Ga-ram, Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won, Bae Jin-woong, Jang Eui-don

Director: Kim Yong-hoon

Rated: NR

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Right after Quentin Tarantino truly put down stakes with the mighty players of Hollywood with 1994’s Pulp Fiction, critics discovered a new way to describe movies that had a violent streak along with ice cold blood running through their veins: Tarantnio-esque.  These films were gritty in the sense that they had a rusty sheen to them, making even the most uglied up movie star still look magazine cover ready.  Between witty banter and twisty plots with quadruple crosses and time hopping storylines, the movies were too cool for school and aimed to match Tarantino’s ear for dialogue, taste in music, and encyclopedic knowledge of film to help make numerous small references throughout.  The trouble was Tarantino was such a singular talent that it was next to impossible to make it look as effortless as he did so any attempt to do so wound up looking like the close by no cigar try it was.

With the success of 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite from Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, I’m already seeing a similar trend emerge from that film’s popularity.  Press ads for the South Korean crime thriller Beasts Clawing at Straws compare this new film to last year’s runaway awards hit as well as making passing mention to it resembling something the director of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood might have made had it been produced in the U.S.  The good news is that for once the quotes aren’t totally off the mark, if even they are slightly more effusive for the overall entertainment value of the picture in general.  While there are certain delights to be had in this wicked little tale, a sameness sets in that starts to dampen the early spark set off by director Yong-hoon Kim, who adapted the film from a novel by Keisuke Sone.

It’s a simple story, a tale as old as time almost.  A bag of money has parted ways with its owner through a series of unfortunate events and a number of people are now after it, all thinking they have a rightful claim to the contents.  The movie clocks how the bag came to be in a locker at a shoddy bathhouse and where it goes after a cash-strapped late-night janitor finds it and takes it home when he is fired by his sniveling boss.  Finding out who originally had the money, how they lost it, if they are they ones currently trying to get it back, and who ends up with it becomes a head-spinner of a mystery that isn’t always telegraphed ten minutes in advance but still carries with it some familiarity of other films with this similar robbery storyline.  Divided into chapters via title cards making use of an image that is yet another piece of the riddle we’re being told in fragments, keep your eyes on the money not just while it’s in the bag but where it originates as that is key to unraveling the solution later on.

Chock full of characters and a swerving plot that waits for no viewer, Beasts Clawing at Straws demands more than your usual amount of attention and that begins to get exhausting after an hour or so.  It would help if there were a few standouts in the cast, but everyone is playing into their stock characters so much that it’s hard to derive much nuance from them, let alone ask them to provide it from Kim’s script.  As in most cases, it’s the villains that linger the longest in memory so Jeon Do-yeon’s glam madame lady crime boss has the most fun devouring the scenery and we are more the better it.  The air of the film palpably changes when she arrives and coincidentally that’s when the most trouble begins for a number of the players we’ve already met…plus the most bloodletting.  Here again is another case where you wish she was given more than a passing brush stroke of a character trait, the film simply doesn’t have the time or space to allow much of that in the story it needs to tell.

I have the sneaking suspicion this is one property some American studio will buy and remake in English and in the right hands it could emerge as a tighter, trickier film with a few more surprises in store for the viewer.  There are plenty of juicy roles that Hollywood actors would love to snag, like the femme fatale criminal that causes so much trouble and a freaky henchman that likes to eat raw fish guts in between dispatching his victims.  Rehashing some stale double crosses, Beasts Clawing at Straws knows how to stage a good-looking backstabbing (the film is beautifully made and edited) but it lacks a stronger air of unpredictability and memorable performances.  The one standout can’t carry the whole film on her shoulders and the other beasts needed more bite to match her performance.