“Hunt” – Hunter and Hunted

Lee Jung Jae, the acclaimed star of “Squid Game” on Netflix, has made “Hunt” his directorial debut. Adapting a script written by Jo Seung-Hee, he also stars in the film. Ordinarily this would signal a vanity project, but in the case of “Hunt,” the results are anything but.

The early minutes of “Hunt” are relentless in setting a scene of protest, violence, terror, and political unrest. It is the mid 1980s, a military coup has installed a dictator who has turned the army against students who are revolting against the regime’s repression of democracy. Rounded up and thrown into prison, they are tortured and often killed. The fear of North Korean influence is used to justify the methods the military uses against their own citizens. It is a truly dynamic opening, immersing the viewer immediately into the ever present atmosphere of paranoia. But as the adage goes, just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Fast cut to Washington DC where the president is paying an official visit. Shots ring out from a rooftop, causing chaos and nearly succeeding in finding their target. The assassination attempt on the president is thwarted by American agents and the ever vigilant KCIA, Korea’s domestic and foreign security. But how, the Ministry of Defense wonders, could this have happened? The itinerary was top secret. This is further confirmation that there is a mole within the security branches, something they have long suspected.

Dubbed Donglin, the hunt for this North Korean spy takes first priority. A professor who was invited to Washington as part of an Economics mission is the immediate suspect. He works at the university where most of the protests originated and had escaped to South Korea from the North in 1970. His torture and death yield nothing.

Kim, Chief of Domestic Surveillance, and Park, his counterpart in Foreign Surveillance, are called in by the President’s top agent, the incompetent and corrupt Director Kang. The president’s trip to Japan must go smoothly. Intelligence has been received that a North Korean agent will be defecting to Japan with the names of agents and invasion plans. They must intercept him and bring him back to South Korea before he gives anything to the Japanese government. Certain that Donglin has been killed, they should be able to carry out their mission in secret.

But all does not go as planned. Kang has given conflicting instructions to each branch of the security operations, resulting in another botched assignment with critical consequences. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Donglin lives and had access to the entire Japanese operation. Someone in one of the security agencies is the mole. To smoke him out, Director Ahn, Kang’s replacement, pits one agency against the other. Park is ordered to spy on Kim. Kim is ordered to spy on Park. Everyone is an enemy; no one is trusted. Is anyone guilty? Is everyone guilty? What do the actions of each man mean in terms of national security? From an initially professional relationship, Kim and Park set up their competing camps. Questionable acts and guilty suspects crowd the field of vision. Each has their loyal followers who uncover enough suspicious activity to destroy careers.

Tensions continue to rise as the president’s staff complete the plans for his trip to Thailand.

Lee keeps everything moving at lightning speed, dizzying the audience with leads, red herrings, and doubts. Your presumptions of guilt will change multiple times. Motives are called into question. The Korean version of Eisenhower’s Military Industrial Complex is a factor that can’t be discounted. And of course, there’s that underlying hint that somehow the Americans had something to do with the coup.

The action never stops, although the expositional ideological motives of each character sometimes slow things down. A little judicial editing might have helped but overall, this is one exciting spy thriller about an era that most Americans know little about (including myself).

The cast is terrific, led by Lee Jung-jae as Park. His world-weary expression gives little away and he garners most of your initial sympathy. Jung Woo-sung as Kim is every bit Lee’s equal in holding the screen. His rather bland, handsome features belie a cunning mind who has more than earned his place in the security force. They play off each other like mirror images.

This fast-paced, well-acted spy thriller deserves an audience. It’s 130 minutes of breathtaking action with political overtones that are seen too rarely nowadays. But pay attention in those early moments because everything will come back into play a bit later.

In Korean with English subtitles.

Opening December 2 at the Alamo Drafthouse Downtown and VOD platforms.