As context for those unaware, South Korea does not have the equivalent of the United States’ Second Amendment. Instead, the country enforces strict gun control — privately owned weapons must be stored at the police station — and fatal shootings hardly ever happen there. That’s important to know when watching Korean movies: It explains why the desperate hero in “Oldboy” fights his way through a hallway armed only with a hammer, or the audience’s shock when the knives come out at the end of “Parasite.”
Director Yoon Sung-hyun was born in the U.S., but attended film school in Korea, where high-impact survival thriller “Time to Hunt” takes place. The story of four young thieves, a relentless killer and a whole lot of bullets, Yoon’s ultra-violent, Hollywood-style second feature is a radical departure from his more introspective 2011 student film, “Bleak Night,” and from the country’s gun laws in general. The helmer clearly has Christopher Nolan and Michael Mann in mind, putting his own spin on the detached coolness and precision staging seen in movies like “The Dark Knight” and “Heat” — although his plotting is a mess.
The setting isn’t South Korea as we know it, but a dystopian near future, following a financial crisis that has devastated the economy and ushered in mass protests and political unrest. An early establishing shot reveals a grungy modern city not unlike the one into which Clive Owen stumbled after the coffee-shop bombing in Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men”: A mix of old and new cars pass on pollution-clogged streets, overshadowed by massive electronic billboards and police-state video surveillance. Yoon commits himself to world-building early on, which serves the movie well later, when it comes time to orchestrate a series of atmospheric set-pieces in deserted streets and derelict buildings.
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“Drugs and guns — what the hell happened?” bewildered ex-con Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) asks his best friends, Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik, the son in “Parasite”) after surveying the seemingly unrecognizable metropolis. It would be a fair question if the immoral young men weren’t criminals themselves. Jun-seok spent the previous three years behind bars, doing time for a job he miscalculated, but the Korean won has crashed so badly during the interval that their score is now worth perhaps $2,000 at best.
Jun-seok suggests they plan one more heist. He knows an illegal gambling den where stacks of U.S. dollars sit behind the counter, practically begging to be hijacked. He also knows an arms dealer who can hook them up with the kind of heavy artillery seldom seen on Korean screens. And he’s figured out where they can all go with the money, describing a simpler life on the beaches of Taiwan.
“Time to Hunt” is slow to get started, but once Jun-seok’s plan goes into action, it hardly ever decelerates. That’s because the three amigos — plus inside man Sang-soo (Park Jeong-min), who works in the casino — failed to consider that there might be consequences for stealing from a bunch of gangsters. Turns out, it’s not the loot but a handful of surveillance tapes they grabbed in the process that trigger the stop-at-nothing pursuit, though they’re too busy trying to stay alive to realize their mistake.
Yoon invests a lot of energy in showing the four young friends’ commitment to one another, though it’s not entirely clear why he deems them worthy protagonists. They’re reckless and selfish, and look more like a boy band than a criminal gang (Choi sports a number of regrettable tattoos on his hands and neck). Meanwhile, the most interesting character doesn’t enter the picture until once their little caper is done.
That would be Han (Park Hae-soo) — the “hunter” of the film’s title — who lives in an apartment with a framed collection of human ears on his wall, presumably severed from past victims. His task is to figure out who the masked casino thieves were, recover the tapes and kill the culprits. Technically, the last step isn’t part of his job; he thinks of it more as “fun.”
Very little is known or explained about Han, who could be Korea’s answer to Anton Chigurh — a hired killer who’s all menace and no emotion. He’s the opposite of a human shadow, in that he has a way of turning up places before the people he’s tracking even get there. And then he toys with them. Skipping many of the details audiences need to make sense of what’s happening, Yoon crafts several totally implausible suspense sequences expressly for their pleasure, as when Jun-seok goes to a bar to call Sang-soo, fearing that Han may have gotten to him, and realizes that his friend’s phone is ringing … from across the bar.
If Jun-seok and his accomplices’ lives really did depend on making smart decisions in the aftermath of their heist, these dummies wouldn’t last a day. But “Time to Hunt” is a ride that Yoon has engineered with traps and twists and narrow escapes. Along the way, the director conducts bold experiments with unconventional lighting (impressively pulled off by DP Lim Won-geun in his first feature credit), staging confrontations in a parking garage, a hospital elevator and what looks like some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial sector.
At one point, Han holds a gun to Jun-seok’s forehead, and instead of pulling the trigger, gives his adversary a five-minute lead — because why make things easy when there’s more fun to be had? The movie returns the favor with Han in the end, leaving the door open for a sequel. Like Yoon, the guy sure can shoot. Time to give him another assignment.