The opening credits of “Hunt,” a South Korean thriller that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival at midnight on Thursday, offer an unusual juxtaposition. The first card in Lee Jung-jae’s film points out that this is a fictional story, and any resemblance to real people, etc. But that’s immediately followed by several cards laying out the political history of South Korea in the 1970s and ’80s: How a military coup took over in 1979 after the assassination of the president, and how the leader installed by that coup eventually claimed the presidency and began a crackdown on the press and anyone who didn’t agree with him.
So what is “Hunt?” A fictional story, or the thinly-disguised tale of what happened after this new president, who is conspicuously unnamed throughout the film, came into power?
Actually, it’s a fictional story set among real events and dealing with some real people, including one who apparently still has enough clout to keep a movie that centers on his presidency from using his real name. (By the way, the real South Korean leader who was installed by a coup in 1979 and claimed the presidency in 1980 was Chun Doo-hwon, who died at the age of 90 only six months ago.)
Those opening titles may be sending some seriously mixed messages, but it’s wise to pay attention to the history lesson they contain. “Hunt,” the directorial debut from veteran Korean actor and “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, is a dense and bloody spy thriller with enough twists, turns, double agents, defectors and buried secrets to confuse even viewers who know the geopolitical players without a scorecard. For those of us who are struggling to figure out who’s who and where their sympathies lie on the fly, it can get downright impenetrable.
The key, perhaps, is not to worry about every detail, and just go along for the ride. Lee knows his way around a story with deadly consequences, and the game that’s being played in “Hunt” is a real one – which gives it more portent but also makes it a lot less fun than a pulpy TV series.
It starts with a foiled attempt to assassinate the new president, with the assassin killed as he yells, “I was just following orders!” (By the way, South Korea’s 2020 Oscar submission, “The Man Standing Next,” tells the story of the 1979 assassination of the previous president, Park Chung-hee.) The new president’s top aides come down hard on the defense services for not doing a better job of protection, with the heat turned up particularly high on a pair of Korean Central Intelligence Agency chiefs, sometime allies and sometime foes Park Pyong-ho (played by director Lee) and Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo Sung).
Clearly there’s a North Korean mole (dubbed Donglim) somewhere in the agency, and the administration is happy to use the intelligence agency to torture any and all info out of whoever who might have it. Those scenes are frequent and graphic, though “Hunt” is an action/suspense film that’s more about the conversations than the chaotic fistfights, the gun battles or the methodical breaking of dissidents’ arms, which seems to be a favored tactic.
Sleek and serious, burnished and brutal, “Hunt” is a Cold War story in which no side comes out looking good. North Korea is the canny enemy, Russia is a looming boogeyman, the South Korean presidency is in the hands of a vicious dictator and the American CIA is lurking in the shadows, always covering its tracks but ready to do anything to hurt Russian interests. This is a world in which expediency matters far more than morality, and Lee gets that across even if the rapidly expanding program of double-crosses gets more confusing by the minute.
To his credit, Lee pulls off a suspenseful puzzle in which shifting motives and dense plots keep the audience guessing until a big and fairly ludicrous action scene at the finale. Or, to be more accurate, it’s a big and fairly ludicrous action scene that you think is the finale; in truth, “Hunt” has more endings than “The Return of the King.”
It succumbs to silliness sometimes, populated as it is by characters who take a licking and keep on ticking (or take a shooting and keep on tooting). But the real violence takes place in boardrooms and offices where Lee finds enough quiet savagery to make “Squid Game” look like child’s play.