“If we continue on this path, nothing will change”
The recent sweeping rise of South Korean films in the West could not leave this year’s Berlin International Film Festival unaffected. Yoon Sung-hyun’s 2020 heist thriller Time to Hunt (Korean: 사냥의 시간) was the first ever Korean production to be shown at the Berlinale special gala section, aiming to please diverse audiences with its thematic blend. Crime and action fans may be smitten by this stylised last-man-standing thriller, which stretches over two hours, but the weak script, prolonged action and unnecessary melodramatic tones ruin an otherwise great cinematic experience.
In the near future, young Jun-Seok (Lee Je-hoon) gets released from jail to find South Korea’s economy ravaged, people on the brink of despair and poverty, and crime raging across the decrepit country. The new reality leaves him with no other option but to pull a final heist with his best friends, Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik), before they flee to Hawaii and start over.
The goal is established, plans are underway, but instead of basking in their beach dream, the trio ends up tangled in a mafia nightmare. A cold-blooded killer named Han (Park Hae-soo) is hired by the mafia to hunt them down and retrieve what has been stolen – and he won’t stop until they’re all dead.
Yoon Sung-hyun’s heist film stands out for its dystopian background charged with political failure, economic disaster, and the underground criminal network running the chaotic world. Lim Won-geun’s camerawork builds tension, especially in the first half of the film, or when Han creeps down the corridor in search of his prey.
Despite the finely choreographed violence, the Korean director opts for less gory effects, which is a common technique in Korean films. In terms of visuals, the cold shades and orange-hued lighting enhance the protagonists’ emotional turmoil when confronted with the grim assassin.
The young leads are polished enough to inhabit the screen with unassumed ease, gaining our empathy in the dire circumstances they lumber into. The hopeless world they live in is accentuated by the Terminator-like sternness of Park Hae-soo, whose character is enriched with the potential to transform into something more intricate than a steadfast killing machine – but never actually takes the leap.
Regrettably, the second half of the film loses its momentum. Too many culminating scenes lead to a repeated cycle of tension that quickly becomes tiresome, especially when certain elements of the plot steer away from reality and common sense.
Following the success of Bleak Night (2010), Yoon Sung-hyun’s second feature film managed to become a sensation when released on Netflix, but despite its efforts to merge different genres and stay true to its uniqueness, it fails to keep its slippery hold on our attention until the very end.
With a stronger script diverging from the typical cat and mouse chase, the cast would have had the necessary tools to irradiate the screen in this depiction of a Hell Joseon setting. By doing so, they would have skillfully criticised the socioeconomic state of affairs in South Korea, especially the younger generation’s struggle with unemployment and working conditions in Korea’s modern society.