Lee Jung-jae wears all the hats in soon-to-debut "Hunt"

Actor Lee Jung-jae portrays Park Pyung-ho, the foreign unit chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). He receives a tip that the organization’s domestic unit chief, Kim Jung-do, (played by actor Jung Woo-sung) is a mole leaking confiden

Actor Lee Jung-jae of “Squid Game” (2021) had his directorial debut with “Hunt” — a film which he produced, wrote the script for, directed and starred in. It took Lee five years to get the film, which premieres in local theaters on Wednesday, on screens.

“Hunt,” set in the 1980s during the Chun Doo Hwan military dictatorship, pits two stars — Lee and Jung Woo-sung — against each other. Park Pyung-ho, portrayed by Lee, is the foreign unit chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), and Kim Jung-do, portrayed by Jung, is the KCIA's domestic unit chief. They are both tasked with uncovering a mole who is leaking top secret intel with the ultimate goal of assassinating the president. However, their prime suspects are each other.

A scene from “Hunt,” which pits two stars and longtime friends, Lee and Jung, against each other. [MEGABOX PLUS M]

Lee, who had initially planned to partake in just the production of the film, took on the scriptwriting and ultimately the directing as well because he “couldn’t give up” on the project.

“So many directors rejected this film,” Lee said during a press interview at a cafe in Samcheong-dong on Aug. 3. “But I just couldn’t let it go. I knew I couldn’t fathom how difficult the project would be from the onset, but I couldn’t just drop the idea. I thought it was a worthy subject to be brought to screen. So instead of wasting time trying to find an appropriate director, I wanted to at least show [to others] that this was the direction I was going for with the film, which is why I started writing the script. After oh-so-many modifications, the script was finalized, and by then I had already finished filming about seven other films. During the process, there were many moments when I wanted to give up, and realized why other directors refused the offer.”

According to Lee, the biggest difficulty for him was finding the balance between the espionage action genre and the history of the narrative without either negatively impacting each other.

“As a first timer in scriptwriting, it was difficult to describe the precise tension of a spy movie,” Lee said. “And it also took a long, long time to fact check all the history, to see if the researched data was based on objective facts without being politically biased. I also wanted to add a more unexpected plot twist [...] I took into consideration audiences in their teens and 20s, who have no direct connection to that time period. I wanted to write a narrative that they could comprehend without difficulty and offer entertainment.”

“Hunt” is Lee's directorital debut. He also produced, wrote the script for, directed and starred in the film. [MEGABOX PLUS M]

Lee deliberated changing the timeline to a contemporary period due to the possibility of criticism arising because of the sensitive timeline.

“I don't think people could really imagine the nights that I tossed and turned from the overwhelming fear of criticism and putting my entire career in jeopardy,” Lee said. “But I finally decided to go with the 80s background when I was deciding what our film’s message was going to be. The characters in the story take sides and remain hostile, opposed to each other — but for what? Who caused this polarization and how did they arrive at the predicament that they’re facing now?

“When the two characters ultimately realize each other’s purposes and identities, they realize that their ultimate goal is the same even though it’s for different means,” Lee continued. “Although they have not achieved what they came to do, I still leave a small ray of hope for the next generation to accomplish what Pyung-ho and Jung-do didn’t.”

After 29 years of acting, the veteran actor-turned-director says that scriptwriting helped him grow more on screen.

“It still remains to be seen if filmmaking does help one’s acting,” Lee said. “But I definitely feel that writing a script does. [It’s different than merely acting] when shaping one’s role in a scenario, character to find out what kind of life he’s going through, what goal he’s set in his life, or whether he’s the kind of character that a generation nowadays would like. The process expands one’s mindset and it was a liberating experience to organize it on paper.”

After trying his hand at directing, Lee believes that acting is more difficult.

“I don’t know if I’ll be directing any more films,” Lee said shaking his head, smiling. “But I think that acting is still more difficult. Actors are more susceptible to situational changes, such as their mental state, as well as the mental state of their counterparts. They are more prone to exterior influences which will impact their acting. Directing is difficult in its own way. There are many decisions, choices and preparations to be made. It may be a little rash for me to say that acting is more difficult, but I think I dare to say this because I’ve been an actor for a long time.”

Lee Jung-jae [MEGABOX PLUS M]

"Hunt" also marks the first onscreen reunion of Lee and Jung in 23 years since their roles in the film “City of the Rising Sun” (1999).

“I wanted to say that Jung refused the role four times, once annually for the four years,” Lee said with a laugh. “The biggest reason why is because he didn’t want to add any additional pressure on me. He knew that it was burdensome to take on acting and directing in one film, and for years we’ve heard so many people around us, both within the industry and our fans, talk about our reunion since ‘City of the Rising Sun.’ A lot of directors had said they wanted to do a film starring both of us, and we could feel the audiences’ expectations building up. So we knew the film that eventually starred both of us would face overwhelming pressure of becoming a hit [...] He knew that how difficult that was going to be.”