March 11, 2023
by Carla Hay
Directed by Lee Jung-jae
Korean with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in South Korea (and briefly in Washington, D.C., Japan, and Thailand), in 1983, the action film “Hunt” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) work together and clash with each other in their efforts to find a mole who has been leaking valuable information.
Culture Audience: “Hunt” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and complex spy movies.
“Hunt” sometimes gets too convoluted for its own good, but it offers a mostly engaging mystery for viewers who have the attention span and interest to follow this twist-filled spy thriller that’s set in the 1980s. The movie has commendable acting and enough tension-filled action to keep viewers interested in what’s going to happen next. However, this movie is not going to have much appeal to viewers who want a more straightforward narrative in a spy movie.
Directed by Lee Jung-jae (who co-wrote the “Hunt” screenplay with Jo Seung-hee), “Hunt” has the tried-and-true spy movie plot of a rivalry between colleagues fueling much of the tensions and suspicions in the story. The movie takes place mostly in South Korea, in 1983, the same year that there was an assassination attempt South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in real life. North Koreans airplane pilots were also defecting to other countries in record numbers in the 1980s. These historical facts are used in the context of “Hunt,” which is Lee’s feature-film debut as a director and writer. “Hunt” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
In “Hunt,” Lee portrays Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) Foreign Unit chief Park Pyong-ho, who often clashes with KCIA Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-do (played by Jung Woo-sung), because each man thinks he is better than the other. Pyonh-ho has been with the KCIA for 13 years. Jung-do is a former military officer who is newer to the KCIA.
The movie’s opening scene takes place in Washington, D.C., where Pyong-ho and Jung-do have been assigned to the protection team for the South Korean president, who is visiting amid a storm of controversy. During the South Korean president’s arrival at a government event, there are local Korean American protestors outside the building who are angry over the how the return of military rule of the South Korean government.
Although the name of the South Korean president is not in the movie, this part of the movie’s plot is a reference to the real-life Gwangju Uprising of May 1980, when numerous people were killed over protesting military rule of South Korea. President-elect Chun Doo-hwan was largely blamed for this massacre. In the movie, some of the protesters have sign that call the South Korean president a “murderer.”
The head of the CIA’s East Asia unit, whose name is Director Gee (played by Paul Battle), has relayed information that there’s an assassination plot against the South Korean president that is expected to happen at this event. Pyong-ho is ordered to have his team on high alert. And sure enough, the assassination attempt happens, but Pyong-ho is able to thwart it by taking it upon himself to shoot and kill the assassin. Instead of praising Pyong-ho as a hero, Pyong-ho’s boss Director Kang (played Song Young-chang) scolds Pyong-ho for killing the suspect instead of wounding the suspect and taking the suspect into custody.
The investigation into this assassination attempt reveals that an unidentified mole with the code name Donglim is in the KCIA. It leads to Pyong-ho’s team and Jung-do’s team investigating each other. Early on, a economics professor named Shin Ki-Cheol, who was part of the delgation in Washington, is considered to be part of the assassination conspiracy. But is this professor really involved or just a scapegoat?
The people on Pyong-ho’s team include Bang Joo-kyung (played by Jeon Hye-jin) and Agent Yang (played by Jung Man-sik). Jung-do’s team includes Jang Cheol-seong (played by Heo Sung-tae). In between all this espionage intrigue, Pyong-ho has been tasked with protecting a slightly rebellious college student named Jo Yoo-jeong (played by Go Youn-jung), who unfortunately is a character that looks like a token female in this movie where the cast members with significant speaking roles are almost all men.
Under the direction of Lee, “Hunt” does a pretty good job of increasing the suspense, but at the expense of causing more confusion in the plot. The stakes get higher for the characters when Pyong-ho’s team and Jung-do’s team are each convinced that the mole is on the other team. Both teams also want to impress the newly appointed KCIA Director Ahn (played by Kim Jong-soo), who is an ex-military officer. Double-cross plots are uncovered. And the race to find out the identity of Donglim leads to uncovering more assassination plots that take some of the characters to Japan and Thailand.
Lee, who is best known as a star of the Netflix series “Squid Game,” performs admirably in the role of Pyong-ho, always leaving audiences guessing until a certain point in the movie how much Pyong-ho really knows about the Donglim the mole. Woo-sung does very well in his scenes when his Jung-do character has conflicts with Pyong-ho. Will these fierce rivals ever trust each other? And who is Donglim? The movie answers these questions in some ways that are less predictable than others. The last 20 minutes of “Hunt” are an adrenaline-packed knockout that achieves the intentions of “Hunt” to not have a typical ending for a spy movie.
Magnet Releasing released “Hunt” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 2, 2022. The movie was released in South Korea on August 10, 2022.