A propulsive, albeit complicated, narrative plays out across Lee Jung-jae’s directorial debut “Hunt.” Cashing in on the capital that “Squid Game” and a recent Emmy win got him, Jung-jae marries the spy and action genres in a film that he co-writes, directs, and stars into middling results. Fictionalizing the Gwanju Uprising that took hold of the Southern Korean government in the 1980s, the film is ostensibly about two career spies — Jung-jae’s Korean Central Intelligence Agency Foreign Unit Chief Park Pyong-ho and Jung Woo-sung’s Domestic Unit chief Kim Jung-go — investigating each other to discover who a mole codenamed Donglim.
In reality, though, the convoluted plot is really just an excuse to move between artfully staged, borderline absurd set pieces. The film begins in Washington, D.C., as Park and Kim manage to foil a plot to assassinate the Southern Korean president. From there, we are thrust into a tangled web of double-crosses as the KCIA chief pits the two friends against each other, hoping to uncover who is trying to stage a coup.
Packed on top of this is a string of sub-plots and allusions to real-life incidents — including the defections of a North Korean pilot — that barely have any room to breathe. This is especially true of Ju-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin), Park’s deputy who suspects him of withholding secrets, and Yoo-jung (Go Young-jung), a young college student who has obscure ties to Park for reasons that the film slowly reveals, if only to undercut at the end of the film.
By the time the CIA shows up to complicate the ever-expanding web of spies and competing loyalties, the dense thicket of the plot has been completely obscured. Yet within the fog of betrayal and deception, Jung-jae demonstrates that he is not only an enormously talented actor — his ability to sell absurd dialogue is on full display here, but an exciting director. If you tune out the backstabbing, twists, and double-crosses built on triple-crosses, “Hunt” has just enough action to maintain interest. As designed by stunt coordinator Heo Myeong-Haeng, there are a number of incredibly bloody shootouts that demonstrate Jung-jae’s ability to stage action and tension, which is especially true of the film’s dynamic opening.
Why these shootouts are happening and what purpose they serve the narrative is, frankly, beyond me. If Jung-jae demonstrates an uncanny ability to direct action, the opposite is true for his script — co-written with Jo Seung-Hell. The shifting loyalties and personalities of not only Park and Kim but also all of their underlings make it complicated to get a read on anyone, let alone sort out motivations. If the film seems to be shooting for le Carré territory, with its lite-fictionalization of real-life events, it forgets to have a moral center that the audience can identify with.
Park is definitely not that person, as the viewer is forced the recontextualize his priorities every few minutes or so as more is revealed about his backstory and relationship with Yoo-jung. Kim is given even less shading, as his penchant for brutal torture is foregrounded in a way that it doesn’t really matter if he’s the mole or not because he’s just a completely unsympathetic person.
By the time the film reaches its final twist, it almost acts as a punchline to a two-plus-hour joke about the inanity of spycraft. It’s a reveal so harebrained it doesn’t so much make you question the film that comes before it as it does Jung-jae’s logic and reasoning. While “Hunt” almost skates by on its absurd commitment to its action, it nevertheless is too long and convoluted, leading to a dizzying and mystifying viewing experience. [C-]