Lee Jung-jae has long been a star. The world outside of Korea, unless it’s been following the peninsula’s sensational cinema for a long time, has only really taken notice since Squid Game. In last year’s smash hit Netflix series, Lee played a gambling-debt-stricken git who eventually triumphed in the sadistic competition, a blatant allegory of capitalism.
Born in 1972, Lee has been part of the top echelon of Korean actors since the 1990s, along with older colleagues such as Song Kang-ho and Choi Min-sik. The latter, known from “Oldboy” and long since the most important actor of his generation, was also the one who campaigned for Lee’s leading role “New World”. In the slick 2013 thriller, Lee plays a double agent of sorts who gradually becomes entangled in the self-spun web between the police force and a crime syndicate.
Parallel to the early days of his acting career, Lee modeled, and since 2021 he has been the global ambassador for the luxury brand Gucci. He also runs a chain of restaurants in Seoul, named after the hit sleeper — that’s what movies are called that develop a cult following over the years — 2000’s Il Mare, which has had a 2013 Hollywood remake called The Lake House” with Keanu Reeves. For a while, Lee has also been CEO of the production company Artist Company, which he founded with colleague Jung Woo-sung.
On the terrace in Cannes
On Friday morning, these two, Lee and Jung, could be seen giving interviews to Korean TV on the terrace of the Palais des Festivals in Cannes. Lee wore a slim fitting gray suit and Gucci loafers on his bare feet. The most stylish Cannes visitors, the only ones who, even in summer temperatures, would never be caught in shorts and a T-shirt, not even at ten in the morning, are basically Koreans and Japanese.
Is this just a side observation, or is there something to be inferred from it? Despite all the rapid modernization, Korean society is characterized by patriarchal hierarchies and a merciless corporate morale that places loyalty and professionalism above all else. As any visit to Seoul, no matter how brief, makes clear, the difference between the private and the public sphere is striking.
Social roles are performed with a professionalism that has long since become unusual in the West. That is reflected in the films. Korean productions, at least those that are most successful at home while also penetrating the global market, have been among the most aesthetically refined to be seen in cinemas for at least twenty years.
Hunt, Lee’s directorial debut, screened in Cannes’ genre-dedicated Midnight Screenings series, is no exception. No prisoners, by the way. The body count is unparalleled. In the two hours and eleven minutes of its running time, entire battalions of spies and police officers are wiped out. The supply company for the artificial blood must have been busy for days. Similar to New World, Lee plays top spy Park Pyung-ho, who may have sympathies for the other side.
Loosely based on historical events of the early 1980’s, “Hunt” tells a tale of double agents and double standards. For a long time, Pyung-ho is at the center of the plot, so that the viewer imperceptibly feels compelled to develop sympathy for him, even though it soon becomes clear that the regime he serves is the last excess of the military dictatorship. A close confidant of the previous president assassinated him and seized power himself.
Student riots shake the country. Even when the President visits the White House to secure the support of the Americans, the angry people are at the door. In the Land of the Free, such demonstrations are not as easily beaten down as at home. At the same time, Pyung-ho’s men from the Korean security service learn that an assassination attempt on the president is being planned, orchestrated by an unknown client.
A first spectacular exchange of gunfire is looming, a brutal hunt through the scenes of a Washington theater. This is just the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game that only finds its solution in the last few minutes of the film. Who is behind it – the Americans, the North Koreans, or are there traitors in their own ranks?
Pyung-ho’s loyalty is also tested by the fact that since the death of a friend and colleague on an assignment in Japan a few years ago, he has had a ward, his daughter Bang Joo-kyung (Jeon Hye-jin). She is a student in Seoul, ostensibly apolitical but soon drawn into the subversive aspirations of her fellow students. She later suspects Pyung-ho’s counterintelligence counterpart, Pyung-ho, of being a North Korean agent.
The affiliations and beliefs remain forever unclear. Who is the high-level mole puncturing the President’s travel plans to Pyongyang? Who is behind the betrayal of military operations in the dark, shattered by machine gun fire from previously-informed North Koreans? Who is constantly following the assassination of the dictator despised by the people? Lee’s partner in the production company Artist Company, Jung Woo-sung, takes on the role of his colleague and adversary Kim Jung-do, the head of the other South Korean espionage department, who has Pyung-ho on his back just as much as the latter has him. In a sudden outburst of long-suppressed aggression, the two brawl down several floors of the Secret Service’s headquarters.
The interrogation situations that pepper the film like the exchange of gunfire on the open street are among the most disturbing things that one is used to seeing in cinemas outside of Korea. Dislocated shoulders, electric shocks, even shootings of underlings to break the will of their superiors who are present are the order of the day. Female students are beaten with iron bars, suspects are hung up by an arm and tortured with fuel rods. Amidst all of this, an escaped North Korean soldier enjoys the best ramen soup he’s ever tasted. As a spectator, you better bring a good stomach.
As indicated at the beginning, “Hunt” looks very good. The images of cinematographer Lee Mo-gae, a legend of Korean cinema (“A Tale of Two Sisters”, “I Saw the Devil”, “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”), summarize the story told at lightning speed in impressive images . Nevertheless, with his first work on the director’s chair, Lee is not striving for anything more than extremely successful genre cinema. The screenplay, which he fine-tuned himself for four years, remains as proud as it is modest within the limits of relevant masterpieces such as “The Departed”, the Scorsese version of which was also based on an Asian model. The genre-transcending grandeur of Park Chan-wook’s oeuvre, for example, is neither achieved nor striven for.
You can live with that in Cannes. The arty concoction “Eo” by the Pole Jerzy Skolimowski, which sensitively accompanied the experiences of a donkey, ran in the competition the evening before. After the bizarre show, which felt like Terrence Malick filmed Dumbo, it took a couple of glasses of Bordeaux to calm down. Or you could go straight to sleep and watch Hunt in the morning.