Fikri Jermadi makes time for Yoon Sung-hyun’s latest film.
The epidemic currently sweeping the globe has been an unwelcome visitor for many, to put it mildly. Perhaps I should not, for many have suffered greatly, particularly those who have lost loved ones to this relentless enemy, unseen for the most part. Furthermore, many are still fighting on the frontlines of our defence, going into battle without adequate protection. Statistics also suggest that the working class are those most affected, living in a world without adequate social protections, as the authorities, to whom they look to for informed leadership and guidance, have failed them.
Narrowing our focus to cinema, we covered the COVID-19 impact on cinema in a recent episode of our podcast. Then, I suggested how the postponement of films scheduled for release is likely to lead to a future backlog of films that may be funneled down a narrow demand channel. This is potentially damaging in a Malaysian context, but others have taken a different approach, releasing their films online or ahead of schedule, instead of maintaining a theatrical distribution.
‘Time to Hunt’, Yoon Sung-hyun’s sophomore effort, is one such film. Set in a dystopian Korean city, I am tempted to describe this as a future in our chronology. However, it is more likely that we’re looking at an alternate life of our present time (more on this later). We follow the story of Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), a recently-released convict done up for a robbery he committed with his friends Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik). Though he was the only one who did time, theirs is a friendship that remained strong, particularly as Jun-seok entrusted them with the spoils of their efforts.
However, the world Jun-seok is coming back to is not the same as the one he left. Embroiled in a bigger picture economic turmoil, he is greatly disappointed to discover how the desperate situation has rendered their keepings worthless (again, more on this later). Trying to get ahead again by getting out of the country, they plan another robbery by targeting a casino run by gangsters, and enlisted the help of San-soo (Park Jeong-min), their friend employed at said casino. As ever, the plan quickly turns sour, particularly when they are tracked by an unrelenting gun for hire, Han (Park Hae-soo), pursuing them for their takings (and more).
That is the energy level we’re at for much of the film, for there is an intensity to ‘Time to Hunt’ that is incredibly heightened. It rarely lets up, even in some of the film’s quieter moments, used instead to emphasise the potential implications of their endeavours. This is helped on by Primary, whose music composition in many scenes is driven by a thumping heartbeat tempo, whch can be quite unsettling. Given his history for plagiarism, however, Hans Zimmer and Mokadelic might want to get on his case, but all jokes aside, it can be highly effective.
Staying technical, another reason why the film works is the production design. To that end, I must also namecheck Kim Bo-mook. Why? Because his work makes the world seems both bigger and smaller at the same time. Bigger, because a number of sets here are very well designed, evoking a dystopia similar to that seen in ‘Blade Runner’. Smaller as well, as for much of the film, Han rarely lets up in the chase, perhaps even enjoying the hunt more than catching the prey.
This is to Park Hae-soo’s credit; Choi Woo-sik’s turn in ‘Parasite’ may be the headline-grabbing casting decision here, but Han is evil personified, the light rimming his face making his contours that bit more sinister; Lee Byung-hun may well be the original Asian Terminator, but Park’s phantom menace suggests that producers don’t have to look far for a replacement. Allied with the darkness of night and smog of day, these factors combined to enhance that claustrophobia felt by our protagonists on screen.
Speaking of them, it could be argued that what they did was boneheaded to begin with. Yet theirs is a desperation borne of the situation at hand. Thematically, I found myself thinking of Syamsul Yusof’s ‘KL Gangster’, whose plot begins in the same way. Kuala Lumpur, as the city is in this film, is shown as no place for the working class. Furthermore, Jun-seok leaving the prison is mirrored in Malek’s (Aaron Aziz) journey, being picked up by his friend before becoming despondent at the world around them. Though Malek lasted a little longer in attempting to resist the so-called dark side, both nevertheless become haunted by the consequences of their action (and inaction).
If there is more than a whiff of proletariat sympathy here, it is deliberate. Media reports, often delivered through the radio, constantly remind us of the depravity of the bigger picture, a situation exacerbated by the International Monetary Fund’s unwillingness to increase their financial support. This is an inflection of real life, in which the IMF is a key figure in South Korea’s economic crisis of the late 1990s. Then, the agreed packaged carried with it plenty of strings attached, leaving many Korean common folks (debilitated by lower incomes and greater unemployment, amongst others) hamstrung by the pen pushers from Washington.
This is not a one-off depiction. We noted the same context in our review of ‘Sea Fog’ some years ago; much like snippets of the 2002 World Cup in Korean films is a short-hand for unbridled national euphoria, the IMF is firmly situated on the other side of the spectrum, a background big bad Korean filmmakers fall back on, easily setting the stage for desperation to drive their characters wild. If ever Jeon Jeong-hyun writes a second edition of his book, ‘Vicious Circuits’, he may well update some bits of it with this film.
It must be noted that this is not a perfect film, with some parts of the plot leaving me a little quizzical at times. However, the film’s intensity and pacing runs roughshod over them with ruthless aggression. ‘Time to Hunt’ is an engrossing film, a timely and welcome distraction from the current situation. It is easy to get behind the boys, people who have greatly suffered, being haunted by a relentless and remorseless enemy, unseen for the most part. It is grounded enough to be an inflected depiction of the working class, living in a world without adequate social protections.
They are a people failed by the leaders, from whom informed leadership and guidance had been expected (the streets protests in the film also echoes much of the public’s anger at the administration of Park Geun-hye in recent years). This therefore makes ‘Time to Hunt’ not just a creative imagination of an alternate now, hailing from a not-too-distant economic crisis in the past, but also a reflection of contemporary contexts, political or otherwise.
Featured image credit: Janet Elizabeth Henderson