Set during the instability of South Korea in the 1980s under an authoritarian government, with a background of student protesters pushing for Democracy as North Korea angles to assume national control via forced reunification, Hunt has ample political texture. It’s also not short on car chases, firefights, hand-to-hand clashes, explosions and cellphones the size of house bricks. What this twisty espionage thriller, the directing debut of Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae, doesn’t have enough of is character depth or storytelling coherence. That undercuts its effectiveness as action entertainment, a premiere Midnight slot in Cannes notwithstanding.
Charismatic leads and some intense set-pieces keep you watching, but this is an increasingly frustrating movie that loses its way amid a dense thicket of plot complications, double-dealings, counterplans and surprise revelations, without laying the necessary groundwork to help you keep track of what’s going on. Or to care. Lee shows no lack of ambition in his move behind the camera, but this type of psychologically complex, high-speed genre intrigue requires tighter narrative control. The characters are so veiled in secrecy and deception that their motivations, along with their true allegiances, too often remain opaque.
No great catch.
Opening in Washington, D.C., the film swiftly sets up its key adversaries when Park Pyong-ho (Lee) and Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung), respectively foreign and domestic unit chiefs of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, are thrust into action to foil snipers aiming to assassinate the South Korean president during a State visit. Park is briefly taken hostage but narrowly escapes by killing the assailant and angering Kim, who wanted the man brought in alive for interrogation.
The fallout from that incident leaves them with the dangling question of a leak within the organization, and the paranoia of finding a North Korean mole, known as Donglin, in the KCIA. While Park is an agency veteran of 12 years, Kim is new to the field, coming from a Korean Army background, which adds to their mutual distrust. Park’s distaste for his colleague’s use of brutal torture in his interrogation methods only feeds the initially unspoken animosity between them.
A botched special ops mission and the exposure of a corrupt KCIA director heighten the urgency of uncovering the threat to national security, while Park’s obscure personal ties to Yoo-jung (Go Youn-jung), a college student implicated with protestors who is cagey about her past, also casts him in a suspicious light with Kim. When the KCIA appoints another military man as director, Ahn (Kim Jong-soo), he pits the two unit chiefs against one another, putting Kim in charge of an internal witch hunt that will have multiple casualties. But it’s Park’s female deputy and skilled data analyst, Agent Ju-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin), who uncovers a shocking truth that radically shifts the perspective at great personal cost.
Meanwhile, a security breach puts a Korean-Japanese summit meeting in jeopardy and the plot to eliminate the president picks up new momentum with a planned visit to Bangkok. It’s no great surprise when the involvement of the American CIA comes to light. Lee and his stunt coordinator Heo Myeong-heang stage the Thailand assault like an explosive Western showdown, with a military parade on the grounds in front of a grand embassy building that spirals into a blood-drenched shootout.
Lee Mo-gae’s sharp cinematography, Kim Sang-bum’s propulsive edit and a suspenseful score by Cho Young-wuk bring technical polish to Hunt. But despite the compelling screen presences of the two leads, the movie never pauses long enough to dig into the professional rivalry between Park and Kim, their conflicting ideologies or their strategic psychological warfare. Its dynamic surges of violence are often impressive on a scene-by-scene basis, but ultimately, it all unfolds at a muddled distance.