Cannes 2022 review: Hunt (Lee Jung-jae)

Hunt is a tremendously entertaining film that reminds one of a very classic kind of action thriller, one that was as much about the spectacle as it was the commentary that inspired it.”

The more global nature of contemporary filmmaking has allowed a wider range of stories to be told – and while many countries have had strong film cultures on their own, it’s often in moments of cultural collision that some tremendous work is done. This is certainly the case for Hunt (헌트), the directorial debut of actor Lee Jung-jae, who constructs a complex and fascinating portrait of his native South Korea in the 1980s, using elements extracted from a wide range of different sources, each one enriching a truly complex story. The film centres around an assassination attempt on the nation’s president, and focuses on a pair of agents that are tasked with finding the root of the conspiracy, but come to realize this violent event was far from arbitrary and exists as just one part of a much bigger conspiracy. A tense and fascinating thriller steeped heavily with history, Hunt is a tremendously entertaining film, and a remarkable debut for one of South Korea’s most popular veteran actors, who proves that he has an abundance of prowess on both sides of the camera.

Hunt often hearkens back to the classic action films produced in the 1980s, blending elements of espionage and psychological thriller to form a fascinating combination of genres that are remarkably consistent in evoking the spirit of those Cold War-era dramas that were omnipresent around that period. Despite it being his first film as a director, Lee’s vision is clear from the first moment – it is an exceptionally polished, well-constructed film that may appear like a conventional thriller at a cursory glance but reveals itself to be a much deeper exercise in cultural commentary, drawing on a vast history of social and political events that inspired the story. The director’s approach is to draw attention to the underlying tensions – it is not sufficient to provide an abundance of thrills without having some depth, and Lee ensures that there is a motivation behind every choice he makes in the film. It may appear quite traditional as far as the genre goes, but Hunt employs a much smarter method of storytelling somehow managing to be efficient and well-composed in terms of both style and substance, which are often viewed as mutually exclusive in the majority of action-oriented films.

Part of what makes Hunt so effective and allows it to avoid cliché is the extent to which it goes to define its characters as more than just narrow archetypes. Every individual is essential to the story, whether it be one of the major characters or those who exist in the periphery. In addition to writing and directing the film, Lee also plays one of the two protagonists. While he is now mostly known for his international breakthrough in the sensational Squid Game, Lee has endured as one of South Korea’s most endearing actors for decades, and his performance in Hunt is the perfect combination of machismo and nuance, which correlates to the simultaneously complex and wildly entertaining nature of the film. The same quality is found in Jung Woo-sung, playing the other main character whose focus guides the film. The performances at the heart of the film serve to be more than just vessels for the narrative – they effectively guide and shape it into a suitably complex and efficient thriller that is as much in control of its characters as it is the sprawling, action-packed storyline.

Hunt is a tremendously entertaining film that reminds one of a very classic kind of action thriller, one that was as much about the spectacle as it was the commentary that inspired it. The two components work together exceptionally well, and Lee proves himself to be a filmmaker with a keen eye for detail, with his ability to take such intimidating subject matter and configure it into such a riveting, deeply enthralling film. Precise, layered with meaning and offering a fascinating glimpse into the sinister side of global politics and international affairs during an era when such matters were notoriously perilous, Hunt offers the viewer quite an extraordinary experience. The film gradually unravels into one of the more potent psychological thrillers of recent years, where the intersection between bureaucratic chaos and enrapturing action makes for a truly captivating combination of promising ideas and their riveting execution.