Lee Jung-jae’s pulse-pounding thriller, Hunt, twists and turns so much that it will give you whiplash, and it’s an astonishing directorial debut. This film is quite literally packed from end to end with terrifying action sequences, but we shouldn’t forget that Lee’s debut is also a spy thriller with a deeply emotional historical center.
Set in the early 1980’s, Hunt centers on the cat-and-mouse game between two KCIA agents–Lee’s Park Pyong-ho and Jung Woo-sung’s Kim Jung-do. Intel informs them that a North Korean shadow is intent on assassinating the South Korean president, and both men immediately suspect each other. It’s a simple plot complicated with themes of deceit and ambition but also glued together by awe-inspiring action.
For many audiences, this point of Korea’s history might be new, and I certainly found myself diving into as much research as I could after I finished the film. A well-drawn actioner is strengthened by characters with a lot at stake, and Lee packs as much of an emotional wallop as he does with gunfights or car chases. Could Hunt succeed just with its tapestry of action? Yes, but Lee wanted to give a voice to the people of Korea.
“Korean history is really the people’s history. The development that Korea was able to go through was wholly the efforts of the citizens–the everyday people. Over a short time, Korea was able to progress very rapidly. The bigger theme of the film is the belief that we hold onto so dearly and are those beliefs based on real information. It’s not just Korea. There are issues in the United States and other countries surrounding fake news and misinformation–we are all experiencing that simultaneously. It’s a theme that I wanted to explore with the audience.”
Pyong-ho has an almost fatherly relationship with Jo Yoo-jeung despite him telling her that he is not a parent. He looks out for her, but he is surprised when he realizes that this young woman is the future of his country, and he could learn something from her optimism and resilience. Every time they interact with one another, it anchors the film, and it shows that Lee has a knack for a gentler dynamic as well as those sprawling fight sequences.
“These two characters’ relationship comes down to their beliefs, and they were both trained in North Korean society and instigated by this propaganda of North Korea. When they leave there, they realize there has been problems with that education. In that scene in the street stall where they are talking, she asks how long he has been working with the intelligence agency, and he says, “Thirteen years.” And when she asks how long he has been in South Korea, he says the same thing. It’s when she questions him and tells him that the world is changing. He is still living under those North Korean rules, but everything changed for Jo Yoo-jeung when she arrived in that country. Pyong-ho takes that very deeply, and, by the end of the film, there is that hope that you can live your lift differently. That’s why he gives her a new passport. Their relationship is truly the main theme of the entire film–you can have these different approaches to get yourself to the same result.”
Before the final showdown, Kim Jung-do turns to Lee’s Pyong-ho and says, “How long can you fight violence with violence? You think the world will change by removing one dictator.” That line could be placed in any other country at another time period and feel relevant. It’s a universal piece of dialogue that Lee almost didn’t put into his final script.
“I feel like this piece of dialogue is really two sides of the same coin. I put it in the script, but then I took it out. Put it back in and took it out. By no means, I don’t want it to be an absolute statement, but it’s more implying that even if our generation isn’t able to get rid of a dictator, there is a better future in which the generations after us will fight dictatorship. I want to believe there is always a way out of that and to give hope to the audience. There isn’t one absolute solution.”
Hunt debuts in theaters on December 2.