It is perhaps coincidence that Lee Jung-jae’s “Hunt,” reflecting a particularly contentious period in South and North Korean relations during the early 1980s, opens elsewhere in the world, but while it makes total sense to stage mayhem in Washington DC where Park Pyong-ho, a special agent on presidential detail played by Lee, attempts to prevent an assassination during a diplomatic visit, it’s hard not to think of it as a nod to its director and star’s growing international stardom as the lead of “Squid Game.” As far as bids for complete global domination go, “Hunt” makes a convincing case when Lee relies less on his own on-screen charms than fashioning an irresistibly knotty spy thriller that it’s difficult not to get caught up in when Park faces off with Chief Kim (Jung Woo-sung), the head of a rival agency with different ideas about rooting out corruption than he does, setting up a face-off when their boss believes that the assassination attempt could be an inside job.
When all hell has broken loose back in South Korea where student protestors are rebelling against the government and met with riot police pelting them with tear gas and billy clubs, the chaos inside the department somehow seems even more ferocious as Park and Kim are tasked with finding a spy in their midst known as Donglim, thought to be passing along information that could be forging a connection between North Korea and Japan. Lee, whose clean-cut, mild-mannered appearance makes him an ideal fit as a company man, suggests there’s more than meets the eye both onscreen and off when as a director, he oversees massive, action-packed set-pieces with considerable verve and bombast, setting off explosions that only accentuate a character increasingly fed up with a lack of trust. The film is mostly a work of fiction, complete with a disclaimer upfront that it isn’t intended to resemble real-life events, but “Hunt” has a gravitas unusual for something this breezily entertaining, with Lee and his crew putting in the work to make its wilder machinations believable, a process that involved four years of work that culminated in a production that began shooting just after Lee wrapped his role on “Squid Game” yet before it aired and made him a household name.
He may not have such time to direct again any time soon, recently winning an Emmy for the Netflix series and set to take his talents to another galaxy with the “Star Wars” series “The Acolyte,” but Lee appeared to have enjoyed his time in the director’s chair when he wasn’t sweating bullets, both literally and figuratively on the set, and while presenting the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, he graciously spoke, via a translator, about what he learned from the process that he may apply to all facets of his career as a filmmaker, the changes he made following “Hunt”’s premiere at Cannes to make it more accessible internationally and why he was drawn to this moment in Korean history to set a thriller.
What got you interested in this in the first place?
In 1980s Korea, there were a lot of citizens who were being hurt due to the government regime. This is also happening all around the world, even [now], so the theme of stopping this violence and this power, that’s why I think I had to go back to the 1980s to talk about this.
From what I understand, you worked on this with various collaborators before coming to the decision to direct it yourself. What made you want to take on that responsibility?
It was a long process, but as an actor, I wanted to be in an espionage genre film, but there weren’t many scripts in the specific genre. I got a chance to purchase the copyright and I originally just wanted to be involved in as an actor, but as I wasn’t able to find a screenwriter or a director, I started revising the script myself and started thinking what kind of espionage film would I make. These were questions that became heavy and more serious [over time, asking myself] “Why do I have to make this film?” And I wanted to find a theme that [could] communicate with a younger audience as well, so everything started in a light way and it became more serious.
What I actually can communicate with an audience was the main thing I had to think about and that’s why it took a very long time to develop it. As an actor/director making the film, I wanted it to be more successful because of that aspect as well.
Was it a natural transition to move behind the camera?
I’ve been an actor for a very long time, so as an actor, I try to fulfill a director’s intentions as an actor, and I think nothing [more about the last project] once I start another project, but [now] I will at least understand the how much hardship a director is going through. [laughs] Physically, [the role I was playing in “Hunt”] was very demanding and I was in a position that I had to focus very hard for a long time, so it was difficult and I was lacking in some stamina. The preparation took a really long time, [particularly for the elaborate set-pieces] that had to be really filmed well or the part that has to be harmoniously filmed with other [action unit] directors, and I think those aspects were successful because of the long preparation.
[But generally] I’m actually pretty obsessed with the details, even down to the character’s movement path or how many bullets have to be loaded into the gun — I’m very meticulous with that, and the reason why I focus on these details is that I wanted the audience to believe that it has to be plausible situations, so they will believe this actually happened.
I’ve also never actually had any experience with the pre-production or post-production of a film, so this was very interesting for me. I enjoyed the process and I think when I work as an actor [in the future], it’ll definitely be beneficial because I know more in terms of sound or editing, and it’ll be more helpful to me as an actor.
The film has changed slightly since Cannes to make it more accessible to a global audience. Has that been interesting to navigate in general, staying true to what’s culturally important and specific to you while opening up to international tastes?
After premiering at the Cannes Festival, about 30 percent of the audience was mentioning the very distinct Korean political situations such as the North-South Korean relationship or the military regime as being hard for them to understand, so instead of trying to make them understand those details, I wanted to go with the simpler theme of stopping the violence. So there was some editing after Cannes – also in terms of the subtitles, I had to revise what was difficult for non-Koreans to understand such as the Korean names or locations or organizations that were harder for Non-Koreans to pronounce or follow. But I think the main theme I wanted to come across can actually be hindered by these other themes that I didn’t need to clarify. You can see in “Squid Game” as well, the theme is we don’t overcompete with everybody and we try to live in harmony. That’s something that can resonate with the global audience, [and in “Hunt”] to stop the violence — it’s terrifying and terrible — that’s a theme that everybody can understand globally as well.