Time To Hunt
Onto the latest in the long-running “Netflix vs the world” conflict. Time To Hunt (Sanyangui Sigan), a Korean film from little-known director Yoon Sung-hyen, was yet another property that the streaming giant was able to call a “Netflix Original” without being involved in its production, but the act of buying it caused a legal ruction I remember reading about back in early April. Other distributors filed injunctions, South Korean courts got involved, and it seemed for a while like Time To Hunt might need to wait a while before seeing the light of day outside of festivals. Streaming releases versus theatrical runs is a big topic in the film industry right now, what with AMC Cinemas going to war with Universal Studios over, of all things, Trolls: World Tour, and Netflix’ skirmish with Contents Panda was not all that far away.
However that larger battle is going to pan out – for me, cinemas are a dying model and have increasingly little leverage with studios – Netflix presumably got the chequebook out again, and Time To Hunt was unexpectedly released from injunction a few weeks ago. I wonder if the presence of Choi Woo-shik in the cast, recently of gargantuan worldwide success, and current NFB #1 for the year, Parasite, might have had something to do with it. Regardless, after putting it off for a few weeks I was happy to give Time To Hunt a try, hopeful for a taut crime-thriller that would justify Netflix’ largess, but wary that this would all turn out to be outdone by the real-life drama surrounding it.
In a dystopian future South Korea where unemployment and crime are rife, Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) finishes a three-year stint in prison for robbery, armed with a dream of escaping his miserable existence. Getting together his friends Ki-hoon (Choi) and Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong), and reluctant recruit Sang-soo (Park Jung-min), Jun-seok targets an illegal gambling den for the cash needed, but plans go awry when the group is targetted by deadly contract killer Han (Park Hae-soo), leading to a desperate chase across Korea.
Time To Hunt is a film of many faces. It’s a heist film of course, with the crew’s job of sticking up the gambling den taking up the entire first act. It’s got more than a bit of a horror film about it too, in most of the final two-thirds. It’s a relationships drama, a commentary on South Korean society and a very interestingly shot movie. It isn’t Parasite, but man, the way that it is made and the way in which it is multiple things at once without any of them overshadowing the others, certainly makes one think of Bong Joon-ho.
The heist portion of the film has a basic enough presentation, nothing that you would not have seen before, but still enjoyable in its own way. There’s the idea, the recruitment of operators, the plan and the execution, replete with Ocean’s 11-esque cutting and framing of the target as the crew scope it out from the inside. It gives an opportunity to get to know the principal roles a bit better, before the running starts: idealistic (to a fault) Jun-seok, hesitant, conflicted Ki-hoon, child-like Jang-ho and the really-does-not-want-to-be-there Sang-soo, essentially blackmailed into being the job’s inside man. The cast are great, falling into their roles with aplomb, exhibiting a laddish charm.
In terms of being a relationship drama, Yoon finds sufficient conflict between the dreamer Jun-seok and the more practical Ki-hoon, who seem to represent a divide between those on the bottom rung willing to try anything to get higher, and those who aren’t going to be quick to follow lest they fall further. Despite this obvious underlying tension, there is a well-scripted camaraderie between the central three, and the hanger-on Sang-soo, a sense that we are witnessing characters whose loyalty to each other goes beyond what is presented on-screen.
Around the hour mark Time To Hunt lives up to its name and abruptly becomes a bit of a horror movie, due to the introduction of the effortlessly unnerving Han. You might think that the switch would be jarring or a tonal problem, but Time To Hunt actually handles this potential problem pretty well, by doing the work beforehand to always give the film a bit of a creepy vibe, especially in its general look. Thus, when the remorseless killer shows up, one whose primary inspiration seems to have been a mix of The Terminator, No Country For Old Men and It Follows – hence the title – it all sort of fits. Hae-soo doesn’t really have to do all that much, with the character actually working better the less he emotes, and is able to give off a threatening aura in every slow, calculated movement. The film has a focus on the look, shape, feel and form of firearms, a rarity in the real Korea, but distressingly common in Time To Hunt: perhaps the best contrast between the gang of friends and Han is the former’s lack of experience with guns, and the latter’s eerie professionalism.
Yoon takes care in establishing his world, one where an economic apocalypse – in the not-too-distant future a smoggy, dark South Korea is under partial IMF control after a national bankruptcy – makes industrial unrest, devalued currency, mass protests, crime and youth hopelessness all parts of everyday life. In this there are obvious ties to the inner messages of Parasite and its ode to the “Hell Joseon” sentiment: not for nothing do Time To Hunt’s characters repeat the word “hell” to describe their lives and their prospects over and over again, with Southern Taiwan taking on the role of a distant paradise.
The gang that embarks on the robbery, and then the flight across Korea, are not glamourous Danny Ocean-esque criminals, they are disillusioned young men just trying to escape: escape lives of unemployment, worthlessness and dead-end directions, things that Han exemplifies rather well in his dead-eyed perseverance and refusal to let go. It is not hard to understand why, despite some initial hesitance, they all go in on the job, grasping at whatever straw that they can to find a way out, to a place where the water is blue.
If the film errs it is in its length, which is excessive: the final confrontation reminded me a bit of Dragged Across Concrete in the way that the director had trouble finding the right ending, unable to bring things to a culminating point. At nearly 140 minutes, it’s an epic that could have been more constrained without losing any of its tension or audience engagement. And I will admit there is a certain sense of the film starting to run away with itself in the closing stages, especially when a key new character who will have a huge impact on the finale is suddenly introduced. That’s not a fatal flaw at all, but I do think that Yoon should have had more confidence in his main protagonists to carry the ball.
Perhaps a bigger flaw is the lack of women in the production, with Ki-hoon’s fretting mother, a cowering gambling den employee and a hospital receptionist the only feminine parts. This gives things an overly-macho feel (I’ve never watched a group of guys for so long and not heard women being mentioned, even in sexist terms), and the film may have been better off if at least one of the crew was of the opposite sex. Or there could have been a girlfriend or a wife, or something.
Yoon’s film is remarkable looking. I assume budgetary restrictions explain the minimalist approach in terms of sets and cast: the vast majority of Time To Hunt takes place in a series of abandoned, dilapidated buildings, or the floors of buildings that are presumably not in use. Extras are at a premium, and the only crowded scene in the film is the gambling den that the quartet rob. At times this can become a little distracting, like an extended sequence in a hospital which appears to be staffed solely by a receptionist and houses no patients. But Yoon makes the restrictions work for him, it becoming part of the Korean financial dystopia that he presents.
Make no mistake about it, the Korea of Time To Hunt is a strange, unnerving place. It wouldn’t be hard to see theories related to characters dying early on in the film be bandied about, such is the sense that the four are caught up in some kind of purgatory or Limbo. They drive through angry crowds of protesters like they aren’t even there, and their home base is an old store that looks fit to be condemned. Many scenes are bathed in an unnatural red glare that has infernal associations (one most naturally think of a similar effect in Ex Machina), and the degradations of economic collapse make one think that we are seeing a post-apocalyptic setting at times, a sort-of original Mad Max feel, where things are slipping towards a Fury Road.
There is nearly always a hardness to the camera-work, that wants us to get up-close to the emotional pain and desperation of the protagonists, the physical discomfort that their journey enforces upon them, and the rough concrete and battered debris setting that is their stage. They look very real, yet the director has insisted that a large amount of computer work was used to perfect them. If so, the CGI craft is very seamless. The work that goes into the presentation of such a setting means that Yoon is able to really crank the tension up whenever he needs to, even if it is events that are foregone conclusions, like the gambling den raid, or an increasingly frantic serious of chases and shoot-outs involving Han and the escaping four (a parking lot and hospital-based sequence stand-out especially). Time To Hunt simply looks interesting, and that does count for a lot these days.
Of course it is important not to ascribe to South Korea, on the back of Parasite, the title of being the new heartland of world cinema, but I have to say that Time To Hunt is a very enjoyable film from that part of the world. It’s an inventive movie: a heist film with a horror edge, a horror film with an action edge, and just a well-acted, interestingly shot production. More than that, it joins Parasite in having some well-founded criticism of Korean society to make in its subtext, ensuring that the film could not be accused of lacking a brain. It’s a feature that I am thinking better on as more and more time passes, a rarity for me I can assure you. Whatever about what Netflix’ acquisition of the film portends for the industry’s slow slide to streaming primacy, this is one that is well-worth your time, deserving of a big audience. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).