“Squid Game” star and seasoned South Korean actor Lee Jung-jae has broken into the big league as a director with his debut film “Hunt”, which premiered at the ongoing 75th Cannes Film Festival’s Midnight Screenings section. “Hunt”, an action-packed spy thriller set in the early 1980s, revolves around two agents of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) who differ drastically in their approaches to the job of protecting the nation.
The film, written and directed by Lee, also features the star in one of the two lead roles. The other protagonist is played by Lee’s longtime friend and business partner Jung Woo-sung. Lee and Jung first worked together in 1999’s “City of the Rising Sun”.
This is the “Squid Game” lead actor’s second trip to the Cannes Film Festival. He was here in 2010 as the male lead of Im Sang-soo’s “The Housemaid”. The film competed for the Palme d’Or. Despite being set 40 years ago, “Hunt” has clear contemporary relevance. That, Lee insists, isn’t a coincidence. “The contemporary relevance of the story was, of course, in my mind when I wrote and directed Hunt,” he says.
“When I bought the rights for the original screenplay, it had a different subject matter and spin,” says the actor-turned-director. “The character played by Jung was much smaller and the focus was solely on the role (of Park Pyong-ho) that I play,” he says.
“I decided to work on it. In the times that we live in there is so much fake information going around and I wanted to weave that into the film. I retained the 1980s setting because that was a period in which not only Korea but also many other countries saw information being routinely manipulated by those in power.” “This,” says Lee, “happens now as well. So, we have to question ourselves: will we allow all the misinformation to shape our values? Once I decided what ‘Hunt’ will be about, I developed the parallel character of Kim Jung-do (played by Jung) as a person with his own values and convictions.
He is a man with a strong will to right what he thinks is wrong. That is how ‘Hunt’ became a two-character story.” Lee agrees that writing and directing a film while also acting in it is no cakewalk.
“Initially, I only wanted to produce ‘Hunt’. I did not think about writing and directing it. I took on those responsibilities because I could not find the right director and scriptwriter.” But once Lee had locked the scenario, he knew he had to wear the director’s hat, too.
“I felt I was the best person to helm the project, but writing a screenplay takes a lot out of you. So, I am not confident that I will be writing and directing another one soon.” About Park Pyong-ho, the character that he embodies on the screen in his directorial debut, Lee says: “He is instigated to become a part of the spy ring operated by North Korea aimed at reunification.” Pyong-ho’s KCIA colleague Kim Jung-do, on the other hand, is loyal to the authoritarian regime. “He is a soldier. He decides he has to suppress the enemies of the state in a very brutal way. It is apparent that both men are pawns in a larger game,” explains Lee.
To what extent has the international success of “Squid Game” changed his life? “I wouldn’t say my life has changed so much,” says Lee. “It is just that I am now known to a global audience.” Career-wise, he is on an undeniably exciting new curve.
“I can now also work in overseas productions. Global projects are reaching me and they want me to be on board. I am open to these opportunities. Therefore, the principal change that has occurred is that I now have more projects to choose from,” says the actor.
He adds: “I am looking forward to the future. I have been in this business for quite some time but this feels like an all-new start.” Trying to put a finger on the increasing popularity of Korean films and web series, Lee says: “I think it is all about the story. We have a lot of fun, novel and unique stories. That is why audiences are drawn to K-dramas and overseas producers are enthused to remake Korean content.” Although the budget of “Hunt” was a fraction of that of a Hollywood espionage drama, it is the passion and flair with which it is made that lends it an appeal that is universal.
Lee says he made “Hunt” even as he was shooting for “Squid Game”.
Asked if it was tough switching between two dissimilar characters in two dissimilar projects, the actor-director quips: “Do not forget, I have 30 years’ experience in this field.”