November 27, 2022
There are certain things within our mortal world that have been proven to be impossible. You can’t travel faster than the speed of light, nor can you read someone’s mind (all the mutants reading this must feel so smug). There are also the less fun things humans can’t do, such as achieving world peace or not paying taxes. And now I think I’ve stumbled upon a new scientific impossibility: Understanding the plot of Hunt on a first watch. As the directorial debut of newly minted Emmy winner and Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae, Hunt is the most serious adaptation of Mad magazine’s Spy vs. Spy.
The Cold War still rages on, with Russia and the United States shifting their political war out of Vietnam and over to Korea. The wounds of the Korean War still sting thirty years later, with both North and South battling each other in a war of paranoia and information. There’s a rumor going around that there is a North Korean mole, codenamed Donglim, within the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). This mole has leaked the plans for several failed past operations and may have access to the itinerary and security details for the president’s upcoming trip around Asia. In order to get to the bottom of this mess, the newly appointed director covertly orders the chiefs of the foreign and domestic security units to investigate the other by any means necessary.
Foreign Unit chief Pyong-ho (Lee Jung-jae) and Domestic Uni chief Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung) have had their differences in the past, such as when Jung-do killed a suspect who had kidnapped Pyong-ho during an assassination attempt on the president. Each of them has a slight suspicion over the other’s loyalty, and this “no red tape” opportunity is just what they need to dig deep and uncover every dirty secret.
Unless you have an eidetic memory or a Ph.D. in contemporary Korean history (two things I definitely don't have), making sense of Hunt in the moment is an impossibly difficult mental exercise. As many of us did with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet a few years back, you have to accept the convoluted nature of the whole thing. Double crosses become triple crosses, which then become quadruple crosses, which then become quintuple crosses (I’m not even joking with this). And deciphering the script, co-written by Jo Seung-Hee and Jung-jae, may not be worth the effort, as nearly every plot beat follows the standard spy thriller rulebook. Hunt can’t use the same “don't try to understand it, just feel it” excuse as Tenet, as there isn’t any emotional pull to feel (not that Tenet had a heart either).
Fortunately, Jung-jae fills those emotional and logical gaps with enough bullets and bombs to equip a small army. Taking influence from Michael Mann (specifically the street shootout from Heat) and his fellow countrymen Park Chan-wook, Jung-jae plunges into the action set pieces headfirst with handheld camerawork and propulsive editing. There is not a single dull moment within this spider web, with the characters getting increasingly woven together to chaotic results.
If you thought the intricately layered works of John le Carré (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Night Manager) weren’t complex enough or didn’t have nearly enough frenzied shootouts, then Lee Jung-jae has something for you in Hunt. He treats his debut as if it's the bus in Speed, never letting it go under 55 mph in fear that the nitrate itself will instantaneously combust.
Your two options are to accept that situation and ride this bus all the way to its fiery conclusion, or jump off this speeding hunk of metal. You’re going to get hurt either way, it’s just up to you if you want it to be a good or bad type of pain.