There’s a certain finesse when it comes to crime thrillers. Films within the genre must exist within a certain tension and conflict. Empathy for our dramatis personae, the criminals themselves, must be juxtaposed to their morally reprehensible actions. The crime needs to be remarkable enough that the audience revels in their success while dreading the consequences. Then, of course, there is the reckoning. The moment in which the proverbial shit hits the fan. It can be expressed in the form of a siege as seen in Dog Day Afternoon or the primal fall witnessed in The Wolf of Wall Street.
Personally, though, I’ve always favoured its articulation in the hunt ala the Coens’ No Country for Old Men. Simple, elegant with little room to hide. If the characters are not well-developed, then the hunt is moot. If the threat isn’t pressing enough, then the hunt is moot. If the stakes are not high enough, then the hunt is moot. Netflix’s latest South Korean film release, Time to Hunt does not suffer these impediments. It delivers on solid execution while managing to accommodate timely themes and strong character development within its fast-paced plot structure.
The film is set in a fictionalized version of South Korea in the midst of economic dystopia. The value of the Korean Won has plummeted off a cliff. Currency changes are made illegal by the ruling government, thus trapping its citizens in poverty as the cost of living rises, a financial purgatory. Those hungry to escape the struggles of an ever-shrinking middle class may look for salvation through less legal means. Enter a trio of desperate criminals, Jun-seok, Jang-ho and Ki-hoon. Young men looking to get out of their dilapidated neighbourhood and into a tropical paradise in Taiwan.
The three of them will launch a daring heist on a casino, along with the aid of a worker inside the establishment. All goes according to plan and the heist is a success. Little do they know, the security hard drives stolen are worth more than the actual heist money. All hell breaks loose, however, when casino management employs an assassin by the name of Han to track down the thieves. The four of them soon become embroiled in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse across a ruined urban landscape. Where their heist ends, the hunt begins!
Written and directed by South Korea’s Yoon Sung-hyun, Time to Hunt is a watershed moment for the up-and-coming director. Time to Hunt‘s plot is a wonderfully paced thriller that speaks to Yoon’s maturity as a storyteller, despite this being his first big-budget feature film. Knowing when to inject moments of comedic banter and emotional resonance and when to allow quiet tension to build amidst silence. Finally, when it reaches a fever pitch and we find catharsis in an action set-piece, Yoon admirably avoids fetishizing the violence on screen. There’s always multiple dimension to our prey and hunter’s actions, whether it be set up for an incoming trap, a form of psychological warfare or a release valve for pent up emotions.
Yoon’s vision of South Korea in financial turmoil is a fascinating one begging to be explored. There were times I’d rewind scenes simply to find more nuggets of information on the world. Unlike the pseudo-intellectualism of Blumhouse’s Purge films, there seems to be a traceable cause and effect to the low-income prison created post-financial collapse.
It’s all powered by commendable performances through the film’s four main actors. Lee Je-Hoon plays the scrappy, ambitious team leader Jun-seok looking to forge a better life for himself. Ahn Jae-hong is Jun-seok’s loyal righthand man, Jang ho who shares a similar loss with Jun. Parasite‘s Choi Woo-shik as Ki-hoon and Park Jung-min as Sang-soo, on the other hand, bear the burden of their actions for their family’s sake. The chemistry between the four of them is phenomenal. The way their conversations are written and their delivery really sell you the idea that these guys care for each other. The camaraderie and relatable motivations behind our amateur robbers serve as the parasocial lynchpin that holds the film together.
Then, of course, there’s Han. The steely-eyed hitman sent to pursue our merry band of thieves. In terms of character, there’s nothing really that intriguing to Han beyond his function to the plot. Don’t get me wrong, Park Hae-soo plays the archetype well. Those more acquainted this fixture of the genre will know that they tend to be more forces of nature than actual characters. Sometimes, you get them packaged as Nieztcherian ideologues. Most of the time, they let their actions do the talking. Han falls in the latter category.
The methods in which tension is created can feel dated and on-the-nose at times with creative choices that other modern crime thrillers have chosen to foregone. I’m talking artificial heartbeats within the film’s score, ominous dream sequences, blackouts and a strong affinity for Dutch angles. That being said, it still manages to accomplish the task of eliciting genuine emotions of dread and anxiety. One of the more memorable scenes involving a frantic race against time to hotwire a car tends to come to mind. There’s never a dull moment in Time to Hunt, even if its cinematic short-hands at times feel…heavyhanded.
It certainly helps that the film’s sets carry a true sense of presence with them. This concrete jungle of abandoned shops and warehouses, and graffiti-clad walls and corridors feeds into the central narrative and subtext of the film. Not only is it a terrific backdrop to the film’s main conflict, but it also serves as a constant reminder of the socio-political drama playing in the background as well. Whether in the forefront or in the background, the message is the same: Get out while you still you can!
Yoon Sung-hyun’s Time to Hunt is everything you want in a good crime thriller and more. It tugs on your heartstrings when it doesn’t leave it pounding itself into the ground. Granted the film does borrow a few old-school film techniques that betray its director’s lack of experience but it more than makes up for its shortcomings with excellent writing, inspired performances and grim atmosphere. It’s time to add this to your film catalogue! You can now catch Time to Hunt on Netflix today.