In a dark, shuttered South Korea devoid of people after a financial apocalypse, a naïve young gang knocks off an underworld gambling den and becomes the target of an implacable killer. Young writer-helmer Yoon Sung-hyun, whose 2011 coming-of-age drama Bleak Night won multiple best new director awards and heralded him as a leader of the next generation of South Korean filmmakers, fulfills that promise nine years later in the nerve-jangling Time to Hunt (Sa-nyang-eui-si-gan). A technical tour-de-force running over two hours, it belongs both to the East Asian testosterone-powered action genre whose unrelenting tension will be reward in itself for fans, as well as to socially conscious coming-of-age stories whose painstaking character development adds a deeper sense of realism.
Its bow as a Berlinale Special Gala should be followed by a dance card of festival dates and commercial engagements. In case the latter prove successful, the film’s ending has been left open for a revenge sequel.
Certainly, there is a danger that the co-existence of action tropes and imperfect, weak and unheroic characters may alienate alternate parts of the audience. The main issue is the pacing of the opening half-hour, during which Yoon’s screenplay introduces and carefully individualizes the four main boys and creates sympathy for them, at the cost of losing some viewers. It’s not the full-on action taster that most auds will be expecting, and the wait can be enervating. Nor is any emphasis placed on the urban wasteland of deserted streets littered with trash and crumbling buildings. It’s easily mistaken for a bad part of town, until the pic goes on and nothing better turns up.
Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) has just been released from prison after serving three years for robbery. He took the rap for his pals Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik) and they gratefully welcome him back. But, they explain, the world has changed while he was in jail after a big financial collapse; the Korean won they stole are worthless now and only American dollars count. And the only place to get them in quantity and realize their dream to immigrate to sunny Hawaii is to rob a bank or casino.
Led by cocky dreamer Jun-seok, the plucky but clueless threesome add a fourth to their gang, Sang-soo (Park Jeong-min), who happens to work in an illegal gambling den. One of Jun-seok’s former prison buddies loans them some serious assault weapons and bullet-proof vests, and they’re off on a heist that only fools would dare attempt.
Accompanied by a thumping music track, the first action scene starts when the masked crew shoots their way into the building and orders all the gamblers on the floor. It’s like kids robbing a candy shop, only they haven’t made a very careful calculation of the time it will take for reinforcements to arrive. Their breathless escape is made more exciting by the terror on their faces and the fact we already know some of their individual weaknesses, like Jang-ho’s unfamiliarity with weapons.
They get out of town by a miracle and foolishly start celebrating, not realizing the danger has just begun. Despite having spent years in prison and a stint in the army, Jung-seok is so naïve that he phones Sang-soo, who has continued working in the casino to ward off suspicion. It puts the shadowy nemesis Han (Park Hae-soo) on their trail for the next hour and a half. We have already seen him in action with the weapons dealer in a particularly punitive scene.
But gore is not what Time to Hunt is about — it’s psychological terror, which is ratcheted up to screaming level by the end of the film. After a chase through an abandoned apartment building where one of the boys is wounded and a hair-raising escape from an underground parking lot, Han follows them to a distant hospital. By the final shootout, the audience will be trembling along with Jun-seok, who has become a shotgun-wielding street fighter out of sheer desperation. Standing out in the main cast, Lee (Jun-seok) and Ahn (Jang-ho) strongly engage the viewers’ sympathy both as orphans without families and blood brothers who stand united in their moment of greatest need.
The choice to set the film in a population-free dystopia gives the action a mythic quality. There are shots of Han stalking his quarry down the empty streets or silently smoking a red-tipped cigarette in the dark that bring to mind Clint Eastwood in his Sergio Leone days. Or there’s the 007-sounding warning about Han, “Once he has a target, he’ll make the kill.” Yoon is certainly aware of how cinema works, both as genre narrative and as visual thrills, and the tech work (which includes a notable score by Primary combining music and sound effects) is unfaltering.
Production company: Sidus
Cast: Lee Je-hoon, Ahn Jae-hong, Choi Woo-shik, Park Jeong-min, Park Hae-soo
Director-screenwriter: Yoon Sung-hyun
Producer: Rhee Handae
Co-producers: Yoon Sung-lyun, Lee Chang-ho
Executive producers: Lee Jea-woo, Kwon Ji-won, Kim Hyungsoon, Hong Sung-ho
Director of photography: Lim Won-geun
Production designer: Kim Bo-mook
Costume designer: Choi Eui-young
Editors: Yoon Sung-hyun, Wang Sung-ik
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale Special Gala)
World sales: Contents Panda