Most cases of historical fiction require some corresponding historical education. Creating characters from whole cloth and letting them play freely in the vast sandbox of the past has a way of muddying up the record, wherever that past may be in the grand span of human existence. It helps, then, to know where fact is welded to fiction. In the case of Lee Jung-jae’s Hunt, set in the 1980s, orbiting period tension between North and South Korea, and layered with the atmosphere of a high-octane spy thriller, education may not matter. Lee paces the film at such a rapid clip that even audience members who are familiar with its background might fall behind, too, and find themselves wishing for some Adderall to help them focus.
Luckily, Lee—writer, director, and his very own handsome leading man—has a way of weaving in the necessary details of Hunt’s history and making events that are likely remote to American audiences feel concrete. Lee may not care whether or not his Western viewers learned about events like 1980’s Gwangju Uprising and 1983’s Rangoon bombing in high school (in U.S. education, they almost certainly did not), but he incorporates them cleanly, and with sober gravity, into his espionage plot. (The full depth of Lee’s borrowed historical elements is engrossing enough that once the movie ends, you might be compelled to hit the books and fill in the gaps anyways.)
Lee plays Park Pyong-ho, Foreign Unit Chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency; Lee’s real-life buddy Jung Woo-sung plays Kim Jung-do, the KCIA Domestic Unit Chief. Pyong-ho and Jung-do mix about as well as oil and vinegar, or fire and kerosene, which makes their partnership a smidge unstable. Hunt opens as the duo halfassedly partner in Washington D.C. to protect South Korea’s president on an overseas trip. (The president, going by the film’s early 1980s timeline, is a clear stand-in for Chun Doo-hwan, a dictatorial military strongman type who governed unelected from 1979 to 1980 before winning the presidency in 1980 until 1988.) To their credit, Jung-do and Pyong-ho are a successful match: The president doesn’t eat a sniper’s bullet, but a fistful of agents and the sniper all die in the melee. So close, so far.
But the attempt on the president’s life leads to murmurs about a North Korean mole in the KCIA’s ranks. Immediately, Pyong-ho and Jung-do start mapping out the spy’s trail, which, given the genre, means they start mapping out each other’s trails, putting both men on journeys of discovery, self-revelation, and tons of spent bullet cartridges. Spy films naturally feature a series of twists, turns, backstabs, frontstabs, and shocking conclusions. Zigging when the audience thinks the plot will zag is what these pictures are designed for, but deception and mounting treacheries incur a certain amount of bloodshed, too. In Hunt, “a certain amount” includes every squib the visual effects department could scare up.
Hunt, isn’t as gnarly as its Korean action cinema contemporaries. (See: Project Wolf Hunting.) But Lee makes a priority to capture claret bursts spewing from extras during firefights, each orchestrated with a crisp, well-ordered structure that belies the chaos erupting in launderettes, overcrowded city streets, and in remote corners of Bangkok. Hunt emphasizes the importance of geography in action: Fast pans keep up a ruthless tempo in Lee’s gunplay sequences, but the determined choreography holds the parties involved in place until a bullet knocks them to the floor. The fastidious work evident in these scenes nearly reads like a statement against intelligence gathering as a discipline: Shooting people down with a rifle or a pistol is barbaric, sure, but at least violence has a transparent outcome. Double-crossing is another kind of cruelty.
Lee and Jung play Pyong-ho and Jung-do the same way: Tired. These men come from different backgrounds—how different, exactly, is clarified by the movie’s third act—but they feel the same exhaustion, like atmospheric pressure slowly grinding them into the dirt. Maybe that’s just what happens to people working in service to authoritarians and fascists when they also have a conscience, as these characters do. It’s a tough line to walk, where steely confidence meets abject doubts about the moral value of your whole damn career. As with its violence, Hunt expresses these doubts with clarity. If world history, political maneuvering, and the constant posturing Jung-do pulls with Pyong-ho (and vice versa) moves so quickly as to raise more questions than it answers, then the leads’ principled conundrums and the high-caliber fracas give the movie grounding. Lee’s making finely tuned action here; organizing history lessons isn’t his job. But the ferocity of Hunt’s combined action and momentum let him bristle over past atrocities even if those atrocities aren’t his focal point.
Director: Lee Jung-jae
Writer: Jo Seung-Hee
Starring: Lee Jung-jae, Jung Woo-sung, Heo Sung-tae, Go Yoon-Jung, Jeon Hye-jin, Paul Battle
Release Date: December 2, 2022 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.