Lee Jung-jae has had plenty of success in front of the camera, first spending years as a star in Korea and then capturing the attention of the rest of the world with his leading role in Squid Game. Soon, he will even be in a Star Wars project. Now, he’s trying his hand at directing as well. The spy thriller Hunt marks Lee’s directorial debut — and he also stars in the film and co-wrote the screenplay.
Hunt made its debut at the Cannes Film Festival last year; I caught it at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the bombastic action and plentiful twists made it one of my favorite films of the festival. Set in 1980s Korea, the movie uses real-world events — like political protests and even an assassination attempt — as a backdrop to tell a gripping, action-packed story. While it follows historical events, the movie is primarily fiction. “I didn’t want Hunt to be a documentary,” Lee says.
Lee stars alongside Jung Woo-sung as rival Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) agents, and fellow Squid Game alum Heo Sung-tae also plays a prominent role. Part of the fun of Hunt is how you never know who to trust; right up until the end, it’s never clear whose side anyone is on.
The movie is available today on DVD / Blu-ray and on-demand services, and ahead of the wider debut, I had a chance to ask Lee a few questions over email about directing for the first time, straddling fiction and reality, and juggling his new role with acting.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
What made this project a good fit for your first directorial effort? What interested you about it?
I have always had a fondness for spy genres. As time has passed, I have come to think more about what ideologies and beliefs are, and whether the ones I know are the right ones. I have also started to consider what these ideologies and beliefs are for. Hunt is a fascinating work that contains such thoughts.
“It was very embarrassing for me to evaluate my acting”
How did you find balancing being a director with also starring in the film? Were there new kinds of challenges that you didn’t anticipate?
I learned a lot through Hunt. I tried to communicate on set. As a director, it was very embarrassing for me to evaluate my acting. Still, I focused on the emotions and actions that [my character] Park Pyung-ho needed to express and acted with the belief that the answer lies in the chemistry with my co-actors.
What was the research process like for you in terms of understanding the time periods and real events that the movie is centered around? Was it a challenge to create such a bombastic action experience within the confines of that real historical backdrop?
I believe that we should be careful when dealing with history in movies because it can be seen as a distortion of history. I didn’t want Hunt to be a documentary. I doubted that we needed to recreate every detail of such significant events. Therefore, I thought that we needed to add more fiction.
I believe that Hunt should provide entertainment value through mystery and action at the beginning of the movie so that the audience could be more immersed in the drama in the latter part of the movie. It is not a movie that walks a tightrope between reality and fiction, but rather an entertaining action movie with added fiction elements.
Things get pretty complicated. Did you want viewers to feel like they could understand all the twists and turns, or do you think confusion is a part of the experience?
I think that if a plot twist is revealed too late in a movie, it can be boring, and if it’s revealed too early, it can be less exciting. While there may be a simple and clear reason why someone needs to be revealed as a spy at a certain point, there is no reason why their identity needs to be revealed at the end.
I want Hunt to be an appealing movie because of its simplicity. While it is a spy film and therefore has a multilayered structure, I gathered opinions from various people to craft the most appropriate structure for the story.