The opening credits of “Hunt,” a South Korean thriller that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival at midnight Thursday, provide an unusual juxtaposition. Lee Jung-jae’s first movie card emphasizes that this is a fictional story, and any resemblance to real people, etc. But this is immediately followed by several maps laying out South Korea’s political history in the 1970s and 1980s: a military coup took over in 1979 after the president was assassinated, and how the leader installed by this coup eventually claimed the presidency and began a crackdown on the press and anyone who disagreed with it.
So what is “Hunt?” A fictional story, or a thinly disguised account of what happened after this new president came to power, visibly anonymous throughout the film?
In fact, it’s a fictional story set among real events and dealing with real people, including one who apparently still has enough clout to stop a movie centered around his presidency from using his real name. (By the way, the real South Korean leader who was installed by coup in 1979 and claimed the presidency in 1980 was Chun Doo-hwon, who died aged 90 just six months ago. )
These opening titles can send very mixed messages, but it’s wise to pay attention to the history lesson they contain. “Hunt,” the directorial debut of veteran Korean actor and “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, is a dense and bloody spy thriller with enough twists, double agents, defectors and buried secrets. to confuse even viewers who know geopolitics. players without a scorecard. For those of us who struggle to figure out who is who and where their sympathies go on the fly, it can get downright inscrutable.
The key, perhaps, is not to worry about every detail, and just go around. Lee knows his way around a story with deadly consequences, and the game playing in “Hunt” is a real one – which gives it more omen but also makes it far less fun than a pulpy TV series.
It begins with a foiled attempt to assassinate the new president, with the assassin being killed as he shouts, “I was just following orders!” (By the way, South Korea’s 2020 Oscar bid, “The Man Standing Next,” tells the story of the 1979 assassination of former president Park Chung-hee.) The new president’s top aides criticize the defense services for not doing a better job of protecting, with particularly high heat on a pair of heads of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, sometimes allies and sometimes enemies Park Pyong-ho (played by director Lee) and Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo Sung).
Clearly, there is a North Korean mole (nicknamed Donglim) somewhere in the agency, and the administration is happy to use the intelligence agency to torture any information from anyone who might have it. These scenes are frequent and graphic, even though “Hunt” is an action/thriller movie that’s more about conversations than chaotic brawls, shootouts, or the methodical smashing of dissident weapons, which seems like a favored tactic. .
Sleek and serious, polished and brutal, “Hunt” is a Cold War story in which no side comes out well. North Korea is the cunning enemy, Russia is an impending boogeyman, the South Korean presidency is in the hands of a vicious dictator, and the American CIA lurks in the shadows, still covering its tracks but ready for anything. to harm Russian interests. It’s a world in which expediency matters far more than morality, and Lee makes that clear even as the rapidly expanding Double Crosses agenda gets more confusing by the minute.
To his credit, Lee pulls off a suspenseful puzzle in which shifting motifs and dense plots keep the audience guessing right up to an important and quite ridiculous action scene in the finale. Or, to be more precise, it’s a pretty ridiculous big action scene that you think is the final; in truth, “Hunt” has more endings than “The Return of the King”.
It occasionally succumbs to silliness, populated by characters who lick each other and keep ticking (or take a shot and keep whistling). But the real violence takes place in conference rooms and offices where Lee finds enough silent savagery to make “Squid Game” look like child’s play.