Ruairí McCann on Yoon Sung-hyun’s ‘Time to Hunt’ (2020)
Time to Hunt opens on a city street that could be mistaken for the present, if it weren’t for the magnified presence of flickering LCDs and dereliction. For as the tumbledown LG sign tells it, this is a near-future imagining of South Korea ensnared in a Weimar-style spiral of hyperinflation, ballooning costs, and a general air of discord and shabbiness.
Feeling the bite and left aimless is a trio of close friends and crooks whose dynamic is a tussle between the tearaway Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) and cooler head Ki-hoon (Parasite star Choi Woo-shik), with the passive Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) in between. Together they dream of jettisoning their slum surroundings for the lap of luxury of a Taiwanese beach. Funds are needed but they’re broke and their rap sheets leave zero chance of finding decent-paying work. Petty theft has kept them fed but that’s about it. The only option seems to be to risk it all and execute a plan to ransack a notorious gambling den.
The premise covers the first forty minutes, which are worth singling out because they have a discrete quality as a heist film in miniature. It is also the film at its strongest. The compression forces director Yoon Sung-hyun to establish his main players and setting swiftly and to fillet out one of this genre’s potential pitfalls: an excess of exposition. By the time they get away with the money and hit the road, though, there is still around 95 minutes remaining, which plays out as one long chase. For they have not only stolen away with a hefty sum but hard drives containing incriminating information, prompting the den’s gangster owners to send hitman, dubbed “Han the Killer” (Park Hae-soo), on their trail.
It is from here the film flounders as it cycles through cat and mouse set-pieces with dialogue-driven timeouts in between. Reprieves where ponderous musings on the need for family and a better life fail to further develop the characters or the film’s socio-political backdrop. They instead, each time, bring everything to a screeching halt and reveal the film’s shallowness and Yoon’s deficiencies as a filmmaker. The problem doesn’t entirely lie with their respective actors. The transition, from half-cocksure to panic-stricken, is believable enough and they do have rapport. But Yoon is ultimately unable to coax out the complex and unspoken gestures of familiarity indicative of long friendships, or the desperation that would push them towards risk with such a terrible potential outcome. They all seem a bit too doe-eyed to pass as working-class kids who, though naïve and out of their depth, have supposedly been moulded by hard times.
This speaks to a depiction of dystopia, ergo of poverty and oppression, that is similarly thin. It is summed up early on with a slow-mo montage — that gets reprised in part at later points — of the sights and sounds of a deprived urban landscape, relayed from the point of view of a passing car. It starts with weather-worn faces couched in rags, pleading at the camera or just plain doleful, before moving on to a mass of protesters clashing with riot cops. These images, down to the way they are filmed and staged, are carbon copy clichés for depicting the downtrodden and civil unrest in a wide range of media. From guilt-tripping charity ads to news coverage of street protests, and other filmic representations of a society on the brink, such as Children of Men (2006), whose aesthetic this film cribs liberally. In other words, they are hackneyed, which Yoon exacerbates by implementing them merely as quick visual factsheets to societal collapse that feel detached from the film’s main plot.
All of this would be passable if the film excelled as a genre piece. It’s why, isolated, the first movement is engaging. The nuts and bolts construction with the occasional Scorsese-lite trick — such as the camera pirouetting and turning upside down as it scans the job’s topography — covers for flaws that would become more evident later. But the action in this second part of the film is, unfortunately, bland, essentially just the one-note rinse and repeat of the same sequence, where an initial period of distended tension building, in which the protagonists creep through an underground car park or the corridors of a night hospital and jump at every shadow, culminates with Han cornering them in a confined space which they escape only by a hair. Unnerving enough the first time but less so when Yoon restages it again, twice, with negligible differences in setting and choreography. Regardless, Park as Han is a compelling presence throughout. An ice-cold cartoon villain that shadows seem to follow like a storm cloud, his performance is all about maintaining an inhumanly high level of composure. Disturbed only by a periodical flash of sadism.
By the end, Time to Hunt is unsatisfactory in its every pursuit. Its dramatics and political poses are clichéd and undercooked, and as a genre film, it’s not brutal, humorous, or athletic enough to stand out. It even falls short of the respectable achievement of being a solid piece of craft.
Available to stream on Netflix as of April 23rd.