An energetic yet hopelessly convoluted espionage thriller that doesn’t tell a story so much as it chronically bumps into one, “Hunt” — the directorial debut of “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae, who also co-wrote the script and plays the lead role — begins with a premise so primed for spy-vs-spy mind games that you can almost hear John le Carré licking his lips from beyond the grave.
It’s the early 1980s, North and South Korea are locked in a paranoia-driven cold war, and the Gwangju Uprising (during which hundreds, if not thousands, of South Korean students were killed while demonstrating against martial law) is still fresh in everyone’s minds. In fact, the massacre has left such a stain on the nation’s psyche that it even seeps into the Tarantino-esque alternate history that Lee spins here, providing some extra sogginess at the bottom of a self-serious popcorn movie in which the South Korean president is only a symbolic representation of the real Chun Doo-hwan.
Alarmed by the unrest and further agitated by rumors of a legendary North Korean mole within his ranks, the new director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency secretly orders the chiefs of his foreign and domestic units to investigate each other and uncover the truth by any means necessary. Chaos reigns. And I mean chaos. For starters, the heroic Pyong-ho (a highly watchable Lee) and his square-jawed and studious counterpart Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung) aren’t merely co-workers, they’re also kind of pals. Oh, and — small note, here — one of them served as the other’s personal interrogator/torturer after the last regime change. Just another day at the office when you work for the bureau whose previous director, in real life, assassinated the president in the middle of a dinner party.
As if that weren’t enough to sustain 131 minutes of triple-crosses, ninth-dimensional chess, and betrayals so complicated that the movie eventually starts to feel like it’s chasing its own tail (by design, to a certain degree), Lee and his co-writer Jo Seung-hee don’t waste any time adding some more pieces to the puzzle. A sullen college student named Yoo-jung (Go Youn-jung) is the first person added to the mix, though the nature of her relationship to the much older Pyong-ho won’t be revealed for some time. Next, a mission to intercept a North Korean defector off the streets of Tokyo crumbles into a blisteringly intense shoot-out after someone blows the KCIA’s cover (“Train to Busan” stunt coordinator Heo Myeong-Haeng is credited with directing the action sequences, which are visceral and propulsive in a way that American crime sagas almost never are this side of “Heat”). And then, just when you think you’ve got a handle on things, a well-informed North Korean soldier lands his fighter plane in the middle of Seoul and promises to turn the whole investigation upside down.
If it sounds like I’m just reiterating the plot, that’s only because “Hunt” doesn’t leave much oxygen for anything else. For all of its committed performances (gritted teeth and flop sweat for everyone!), period-immaculate set design, and layered moral implications — particularly when Pyung-ho and Jung-do begin to question the greater value of spycraft and the secret-keeping on which it depends — Lee’s debut is little more than a chattering Pez dispenser full of plot twists. And plot twists within plot twists. And plot twists within plot twists within flashbacks that have their own plot twists. Every new scene contains its own board-resetting twist, those scenes careening into each other in such choppy fashion that it starts to feel as if the film is trying to wear you down in order to extract some precious North Korean intel.
This relentless info dump — this pointillistic bludgeoning of story beats — does occasionally cohere into something greater than the sum of its parts. In particular, it coheres into a huge L for the deep state. Watching these characters snap at their own reflections creates a gradual sense of unsustainability that Lee is able to parlay into a bitter commentary on the torrents of white noise and distrust that despotic governments create in order to maintain their power. At a certain point, you begin to realize that literally every member of the country’s intelligence department could be a double agent, and none of them would know.
A handful of egregiously clumsy beats (including a slow clap and a bonafide “are we the baddies?” speech from one of the lead spies) aren’t distracting enough to overwhelm from the more effective subplots and character arcs; a sequence in which Pyung-ho unseats a superior is a telling (and satisfying) indication of his character’s determination, and a thread involving his ultra-loyal subordinate (“The Merciless” actress Jeon Hye-jin) pays off with a harrowing scene that suggests how effective this movie could have been with a greater sense of clarity.
If only the film itself were afforded such a satisfying climax, instead of ending with just one last twist — a final reversal so ridiculous that it left me feeling silly for trying to follow the plot until that point. You’ll probably have a better time if you stop trying to keep up after the first 30 minutes and just let yourself get caught in the web. Or maybe, and I’m not pointing fingers here, you understand exactly what’s happening in this story because you’re an undercover CIA agent who’s been working both sides the whole time! Stranger things have happened, and by the time “Hunt” finally catches its prey, I assure you that they will.
“Hunt” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.