Director – Lee Jung-jae – 2022 – South Korea – Cert. – 121m
Two top KCIA operatives, each heading up his own department, both come to believe that the North Korean mole they are hunting is the other – out in cinemas Friday, November 4th; opened the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) as part of a strand of films celebrating actor Lee Jung-jae (Squid Game) which ran in cinemas from Wednesday, October 19th to Sunday, October 30th
Two Korean intelligence men are sitting in a car. One asks the other riddles.
What’s a war in space? Star Wars.
What’s a war in winter? Cold War.
What’s a neverending war? Korean War.
A little background history will add to your enjoyment of this fictional thriller set against the backdrop of actual historical events.
In 1979, a South Korean coup d’état established the country’s fourth dictatorship since WW2. In 1980, with martial law declared, the Gwangju Uprising saw a battle between the military and ordinary citizens in the town of Gwangju in which at least 200 civilians were killed. In 1987, student protests lead to the overthrow of the Fifth Republic Of South Korea (1981-87) and free elections.
This film takes place against the background of the 1987 protests. It opens in Washington, where intelligence officials from the US (CIA) and South Korea (KCIA) watch a demonstration in which Korean Americans burn an effigy of the President. Because of the US’s civil rights laws, the Korean security men are powerless to intervene.
Nevertheless, they have a surveillance team with a van and concealed, roving mikes lifted straight out of The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974); however, when the situation turns into an assassination attempt on the Korean President by a two-man, rooftop sniper team, Park Pyong-ho (producer-actor-director Lee Jung-jae from Squid Game) springs into action, only to be rescued by Kim Jung-do (producer-actor Jung Woo-sung from Beasts Clawing At Straws, Kim Yong-hoon, 2020; The Good, The Bad And The Weird, Kim Jee-woon, 2008; Motel Cactus, Park Ki-yong, 1997) when his quarry takes him hostage at gunpoint.
The story moves on from the US to South Korea (without bothering to tell the audience, which may initially prove a little confusing to Western viewers). Park and Kim are top operatives within the KCIA, each running their own departments and directly responsible to the director. Park is an investigator who, with his efficient, secretary-ish assistant Ju-Kyung (Jeon Hye-jin from Lies, Jang Sun-woo, 1999), operates much like a plain clothes police inspector.
Former soldier Kim, who was appalled by the massacre of ordinary people at Gwangju, is an interrogator who will use any means at his disposal, including violence, beatings and torture, to extract confessions from prisoners in his charge. He too has a trusted number two, Cheol-sung (Heo Sung Tae from Squid Game, The Fortress, Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2017; The Age Of Shadows, Kim Jee-woon, 2016).
With the KCIA leaking information to the North Koreans, the hunt is on for the mole in the KCIA known as Donglim who may or may not actually exist (they might merely be a decoy invented by one or other party to sow confusion, much like the CIA’s non-existent George Kaplan in North By NorthWest, Alfred Hitchcock, 1959). It later turns out that at one point in the past Park was interrogated by Kim. Also drawn into the ensuing mayhem is a young (non-activist) student Yoo-jung (Go Youn Jung) who is looked after by Park as if she were his own daughter (although she isn’t), with him paying her tuition fee.
As the rivalry between Park and Kim escalates, with each increasingly convinced the other is the mole Donglim, the mystery deepens. Meanwhile, in between the investigations by Park and torturing suspects by Kim, the convoluted narrative delivers a succession of incredible and breathless action set pieces, culminating in a(nother) attempt to assassinate the Korean president, this time in Bangkok in a large house in a huge clearing surrounded by impenetrable jungle in which snipers are hiding.
For those unfamiliar with the cast, the two leads don’t look that different, so it may sometimes be confusing as to which is which. Hopefully, however, most Western viewers will know Lee Jung-jae from Squid Game. This self-directed outing is a stronger vehicle for him than the gangster thriller New World (Park Hoon-jung, 2013) with which it shares certain similarities, both films being about a mole in a large organisation trafficking in violence.
Both also owe a great deal to the seminal Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau, Alan Mak, 2002), the Hong Kong gangster movie in which the cops have a mole in the triads and the triads have a mole in the cops, the source for The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006). Hunt works rather better than New World in this regard, possessing a symmetry not dissimilar to Infernal Affairs with both lead characters suspecting the other of being the unidentified, unproven mole.
The youthful, innocent, feminine figure of Yoo-jung who believes in peace, love and reconciliation stands in marked contrast to the world of the KCIA who believe that decisive, violent action can prevent something far worse from happening, a pretty terrifying right-wing vision of, the end justifies the means. That seems at its worst in the torture scenes, where victims are pushed to the point of confession, regardless of whether or not they’re actually guilty of anything (such as, for instance, being the mole Donglim).
That might be troubling if you stop and think about it, but the film is so full-on as a piece of high-octane, exhilarating, thrill-ridden action cinema that you never really get the chance to stop and think until it’s all over, by which time you’ve definitely had your money’s worth. Aside from the occasional overly complex narrative where the finer points of the plot or the exact details as to which character is which may momentarily lose the audience, this delivers as a no-holds barred action thriller.
Hunt is out in cinemas Friday, November 4th. It opened the London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) as part of a strand of films celebrating actor Lee Jung-jae (Squid Game) which ran in cinemas from Wednesday, October 19th to Sunday, October 30th.