Korean actor and director Lee Jung-jae makes his directorial debut with the May 20 premiere of his 2022 Cannes Film Festival film “Hunt” (헌트), a brooding but convoluted spy caper that follows agents South Korean counterintelligence operatives on the hunt for a mole North Korean in the volatile political climate of the 1980s. From its opening scene, the film offers an engaging portrait of the daily dangers and bureaucratic infighting in an agency intelligence in the service of the Korean military dictatorship, delivering a John Le Carré double agent thriller. But the film drags under the weight of its myriad twists and lengthy third act, which see its mole evade detection so many times it gets wacky. By the end of the film, its potential resonance has faded, turning into a sweeping parable about the unwinnable ethics of espionage that rings hollow after two hours of glorifying it.
“Hunt” kicks off with a bang, opening with a narrowly foiled plot to assassinate the South Korean president that disrupts his visit to Washington. It’s a cataclysmic moment for Park Pyong-ho (Lee Jung-jae), the KCIA’s top foreign operations chief, as the plot renews suspicions of a mole in the agency’s upper ranks. When Park’s operation to rescue a fugitive North Korean scientist in Japan leaks and the extraction goes awry, rumors of a double agent come to a head and Park redirects his attention to eradication of the leak. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one searching; his rival Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung), a former soldier and head of the KCIA’s domestic unit, begins his own search, setting off a feverish race for leads.
In the first two acts, the search goes off the rails, descending into a vicious spat between Park and Kim over control of the agency as clues to the leak lead nowhere and North Korean intelligence stay one step ahead. Although the rivalry initially brings welcome variation and interpersonal depth to the spy thriller, it is quickly blown beyond credibility, escalating into a series of ridiculous confrontations and culminating in an actual fight in the lobby of the KCIA (which somehow does not affect the man’s career). The juvenile pettiness of the whole conflict comes at the expense of agency functionality, making it impossible to believe the leads are dedicated or far-sighted spies worth following for a serious 130-minute story of heroism. .
Beyond that, Park and Kim’s rivalry is extremely confusing, requiring audiences to follow the intricacies of their jurisdictional disputes in order to follow the progress of the mole hunt. The film is poor on explanation and dense on action sequences, preferring to plunge its main characters into confrontations or chases rather than catch up with anyone about their ever-changing allegiances. While this approach helps the film avoid overreliance on exposition, its plot becomes too convoluted for its minimalist dialogue, and audiences have to fill in the blanks on character motivations, key details, and chronological progression — which could all have been addressed. at some point in the film’s lush runtime.
These, however, are the dangers of the spy-caper genre, which typically relies on subtle twists to build suspense (as exemplified in hard-to-follow hits like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”). To its credit, the film also delivers much of what makes spy thrillers so fun – fast-paced chases, hidden messages, settlements, and an ever-changing landscape of sleazy characters who take turns seeming trustworthy and insidious. . Jung Woo-sung gives a uniquely gripping and tortured performance as Kim Jung-do, and his character’s arc is the most authentically human and surprising of all the film’s storylines. But the film belittles its central conflict, as well as its historical immersion, with a third act so fractured by twists and turns that they lose all gravity. Lest you spoil the film, suffice it to say that the questions of what people are plotting for whom (and why) become nearly impossible to answer any moment now. It’s a relief that the mole’s identity, at least, comes out clear – but the character’s reasoning is little explored, their myriad lies never probed, and the consequences they face in the film universe unsatisfying and incredible.
For those who can keep up with the heroes and villains of the ever-evolving story, the ending offers a grim conclusion: in the high-stakes game of espionage, few escape with their lives, let alone their integrity. It’s a classic message in spy thrillers, which doesn’t make it any less insightful if executed well. Yet this idea suddenly arises at the end of a film that has repeatedly shed light on the agents’ ability to have a crucial impact on world politics, especially when they connect to two authoritarian regimes: the northern dynasty -Korean Kim, whom the KCIA works against, and their own abusive government in South Korea, which they are beginning to question after the violent response to the Gwangju uprising. The film’s jaded conclusion, and its lack of consequence outside of continuing the status quo, feels like an attempt at haphazard commentary rather than the natural ending to a cohesive narrative.
With “Hunt,” audiences will find a familiar spy story populated by archetypal secret agents, and they can have fun retracing the intricate route taken by the film to finally reveal its secrets. But they’ll likely come away with more questions than answers, and the film’s rehashing of spy movie tropes isn’t worth the two hours it spends doing so.
—Editor Harper R. Oreck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @harperrayo.