Hunt film still #2 Lee Jung-jae and Jung Woo-sung final

Behind the Action, Lee Jung-Jae’s New Film Is About Korean Reconciliation

Critic Carolyn Hinds talks with the veteran Korean actor about 'Hunt'

Words by Carolyn Hinds

With a career spanning more than two decades, South Korean actor Lee Jung-jae has a repertoire that’s extremely impressive not only for the number of feature films and dramas he’s starred in, but also for how varied they are in genre and narrative.

Most of that, however, is lost on Western audiences, who know him predominantly for his role as the beleaguered Seong Gi-hun in Squid Game. But beginning with his first drama Dinosaur Teacher in 1993, to his latest production Hunt (2022), Lee Jung-jae has played all sorts of interesting and entertaining characters. From the romantic lead Sung-hyun in Il Mareof which the very well-known American film The Lake House, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, is an adaptation ofto the ambitious political genius Jung Tae-jun in the hit JTBC drama Chief of Staff, Lee Jung-jae has proven that he can do anything he puts his mind to professionally, and his new film Hunt is no exception.

Having already proven himself as an actor, Lee Jung-jae took the next logical step in his career by becoming a producer. Co-founded with friend and fellow actor Jung Woo-sung, Artist Studio is quickly becoming one of the prime production studios in South Korea, producing multiple successful projects such as the Netflix Korean drama The Silent Sea, A Man of ReasonJung Woo-sung’s directorial debut feature film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festivalas well as Hunt.

Now taking on the mantle of director and writer, Lee Jung-jae has created a film full of political intrigue and mystery with Hunt, which he co-wrote with screenwriter Jo Seung-hee. Co-starring another famous South Korean leading man, Jung Woo-sung, Hunt is set in the late ‘80s and follows two KCIA agents, Park Pyung-ho (Lee) Kim Jung-do (Jung), engaging in an intense battle of wits, brawn, and subterfuge during the search for a North Korean spy known only as Donglim, who must be caught before an assassination plot is carried out. 

Filled with knock-down, drag-out fight sequences, exciting car chases and explosions, which all serve to tie this tense game of cat and mouse together, Hunt is a film that will work for fans of multiple genres.

During a brief interview at the 2022 TIFF, film critic and journalist Carolyn Hinds spoke to Lee Jung-jae about making his directorial debut, and the future of his production company Artist Studio which he co-founded with Jung Woo-sung, and the Korean film industry. 

Note: interpretation services were provided during the interview, therefore all answers from Lee Jung-jae were communicated through this method.

Carolyn Hinds: For most directors, their directorial debut is usually a very personal story, but in your case, yours is a narrative that’s very action oriented and deals with politics. So, what was it that inspired you to work with your co-writer Jo Seung-hee to create this story for Hunt and make it your feature debut?

Lee Jung-Jae: I couldn’t find a suitable director at the start, so I sort of worked on revising the script, and that's why I ended up directing myself.

CH: You said you couldn't find a suitable director, but what was it about the directors you met with that didn't quite work for Hunt?

LJ: It deals with the Korean modern history, as well as some of the stories about the dark side of the political situation with the North and the South as well, so, it's because it sort of talks about the historical events; dramatizing that story into a movie could be difficult. I think that was the main reason.

CH: Yes, I was very intrigued with how in the film you addressed both the conflict between North Korea and South Korea, and how the country of Korea was split up into north and south, and then actually in a very subtle way addressed the politics between South Korea and Japan.

How did you go about making sure that you address both those aspects of Korean politics and history, but still keep it in the more modern aspect and fictionalized for an action film?

LJ: Well, it was not necessarily [that] I wasn't trying to tell the story of this political situation, or Korea's sort of sad history. That's not the point that I was trying to make. The most important thing was, first of all, it was about stopping the violence. And that's a theme that I want everybody to sort of consider and think about together.

And second of all, individually, I wanted people to ask themselves, if that's coming from [a] healthy place. When you look at these, for example, presidential elections all around the world, you always see this political opposition. They're always fighting. There's fabricated information and fake news, and that makes other people believe this news, then they are in opposition [and] in conflict with each other, and I feel like it's getting worse every year, and [so] I just wanted to have the theme of harmonizing together. I think that was the main thing.

CH: Yes, that theme really comes through, especially in between your character and Jung Woo-sung's. 

LJ: Yes.

CH: I loved how the whole idea of cultural reconciliation and reunification of Korea is inserted into the plot and dialogue. In developing the script, and then in talking with Jung Woo-sung when you were developing the characters, what kind of conversations did you have about that?

LJ: In terms of developing the screenplay and the parts that you mentioned, we didn't really have a discussion. However, he did agree with the script in terms of the direction, and he gave me a lot of support. And there are two scenes that you could sort of perceive as it's not through an objective perspective, and people could actually misunderstand, so he pointed that out. So, I was able to get some help from him.

CH: Do you mind saying which two scenes, because there's very specific scenes in my head that I'm thinking of.

LJ: So there are two scenes involving those young university students. One was revised, and one was actually [removed]. laughs

CH: Yes, the scene with the students is interesting because it kind of reminded me of…not that I'm making it about Korean dramas, but it reminded me of films like 1989: When the Day Comes by Joon Hwang-jang, and other films about the times of turmoil like the Gwangju massacre, and other points of political intrigue.

And even shows that address this, like...there's a very famous Korean drama, which talks about that moment where just after everything has ended, and the country is preparing for the 1988 Olympics (Reply 1988). They talk about how students were very instrumental in South Korea obtaining its democracy. I love that you interjected that to give recognition to the students, but also it turned into moments of levity because they were kind of funny. Those students were funny.

LJ: Thank you.

CH: I mentioned there are moments of levity, you created and directed a script like this where everything is so serious, and it's an action, a thriller with political intrigue and lies, but the action was kind of funny to me. It was funny in a very positive, entertaining way.

My audience that watched the screening [at TIFF] was laughing because the action is just so ridiculous. So, I want to ask you about coordinating with your stunt choreographers and finding harmony in the seriousness of the action and making sure it gelled with the script, because you have to make sure the action occurs at the correct point, so it doesn't interrupt the flow of the story.

LJ: I think when I first started writing the script, I was looking back at the pure and classic espionage films, and at the time, I thought it was cool, but now that I look at it, it was in a way a bit slow in tempo and [unintelligible] developed. So, I was wondering if the young audience today...if they would actually enjoy this type of action? So, I have the action sequences every 15 to 20 minutes to sort of hold that interest.

Working with the action coordinator and having meetings, the things that I focused on was making it realistic, plausible, and believable for the audience. It can be short, but it has to have a strong impact on the audience as well.

CH: It did! Everyone was gasping. I’m a fan of your films. I've seen Deliver Us From Evil (2019), and I loved that film.

LJ: Oh! Thank you.

CH: I read that you're going to be doing a sequel, Ray, which is the prequel of that story, so I need to know what was your reason for doing the sequel to build a villain universe, and when will you take rest, because all of these action films take a heavy toll on your body mentally and physically.

LJ: Iaughs

CH: When I saw that announcement for Ray, I was like "But wait..." laughs

You're doing Squid Game 2, and will be doing Star Wars playing a Sith Lord possibly, I know it's not necessarily a spoiler, but then you're also going to do Ray, so rest? When?

LJ: sighs and laughs I have some issues with my schedule.

CH: You have your own production company, Artist Studio, which you used to produce Hunt, and Deliver Us from Evil. Are there any plans to not only make more of your own projects like Ray, but also develop independent projects for up-and-coming filmmakers? Or even working with student filmmakers to make short films, or doing internships?

I think having your own studio is such a big deal for an actor, but it's also a great way to give opportunities to new creatives in the industry.

LJ: That's such an important question. I'm actually continuously working with this new director and new screenwriter for them to be able to connect to the commercial film industry, because my production company is always looking for a new challenge.

CH: I think it would be amazing if you can continue working on developing new talent, but also especially for younger filmmakers.

I've interviewed people like Bora Kim and Namkoong Sun, and there are a lot of these young filmmakers, especially female filmmakers...who are making such important stories like how you use HuntI think while a lot of people might be really focused on the action, it's still a story about reconciliationand for a lot of new independent filmmakers, they're using their art to tell stories about Korean culture and where they want it to go with female identity and politics.

LJ: I think the filmmakers need to work towards and focus on this. Focus on developing the female characters, as well as pay attention to the screenwriters and female directors as well. In Korea 70% of the screenwriters are actually female, and there are lots of great [female] directors as well. So, I need you guys to anticipate that.

CH: Yes, I can't wait to see how things go. I'm a huge fan of Korean films, genuinely, so I'm very excited to see where the industry is going.

This interview was edited for clarity and length

Published on October 18, 2022

Words by Carolyn Hinds

Carolyn is a Tomatometer-Approved Critic, Journalist, Podcaster and YouTube. Her published work can be found on Observer, ButWhyTho?, Shondaland, Salon and many other. She’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), co-hosts So Here’s What Happened Podcast! and is the host of Carolyn Talks…, and Beyond The Romance Podcasts. You can find her regularly live tweeting her current Asian drama watches using #DramasWithCarrie, and the weekly Sci-Fi watch along with #SaturdayNightSciFi.