A little over 20 years ago, the Korean economy faced an existential threat in the face of the Asian Financial Crisis during which it defaulted on its loans, ran out of ready cash, and was forced to accept concessions some regarded as humiliating not to mention politically regressive as part of the bailout package it negotiated with the IMF. Returning nine years after his indie debut Bleak Night, Yoon Sung-hyun brings these events very much to the fore with Time to Hunt (사냥의 시간, Sanyangui Sigan) while blending them with a painfully contemporary take on “Hell Joseon” pushed into a literal dystopia in which Korea has somehow become a lawless police state in which the Won is now worthless as the government once again defaults and is forced to negotiate with the IMF while workers protest in the streets against mass layoffs and forced “restructuring”.
It’s into this world that Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) emerges after spending three years in prison for a robbery which was supposed to be his first and last job. Unfortunately, the loot he got sent away for stealing turns out to be worthless, the Won being so unreliable that most shops no longer accept it and insist on trading with the American Dollar though currency exchange is also illegal. Jun-seok finds this out from his two sheepish friends who’ve come to pick him up but didn’t quite have the heart to explain just how much has changed. Previously civilised Korea is now awash with drugs and guns, and crime, it seems, is the only viable economy. While inside, Jun-seok received an invitation to a better place, a paradise waiting for him in Taiwan where it’s always warm and the water is a beautifully clear shade of emerald. The only problem is he has to buy in, and without the loot he’s stuck. Which is why he talks his friends, plus a guy who owes him money, into helping him rob an underground casino operated by gangsters.
The force which binds the men together is futility. On their way to collect Jun-seok, Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik) and Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) joke about trying to sell vintage clothes abroad. “This isn’t the time for pride”, they remark, “we’re penniless”. Ki-hoon isn’t keen on Jun-seok’s scheme, reminding Jang-ho that after the last time they swore they’d never do anything like that again. Jang-ho, however, has decided to go for it, partly out of loyalty to Jun-seok who took the fall for them and went to prison alone, and partly because, well, what else is there? While Jun-seok was inside, they lived quiet, honest lives but it’s got them nowhere and all that’s waiting for them is more of the same. “We’ll just be bottom dwellers,” he sighs, “when we pull this off we can live like human beings”.
Yet even between bottom dwellers there are further class divisions. Jang-ho is an orphan with no family to fall back on, while Jun-seok’s mother has passed away leaving him only with a vague dream of an island paradise, a 1950s-style postcard from Hawaii sitting next to her photo on a makeshift altar. Jang-ho also has asthma which means he was exempted from military service, something that leaves him at a disadvantage in the world in which he now lives as the only member of the group without weapons training. Ki-hoon meanwhile has two loving parents, but that also means additional responsibilities in exchange for a permanent safety net.
Ki-hoon’s family is also evidence of rapid social change. His parents own a modest Korean-style home complete with a well which is a source of amusement to city-raised Jang-ho, while the boys are about to be kicked out of their tiny flat for failing to pay the rent. Ki-hoon’s dad is also one of the protestors outside the factory, loudly calling for the government to “secure laborers’ right to live”. Perhaps to his generation, protest has possibility, to Ki-hoon it seems not only “pointless” but potentially dangerous even as his dad grins ear to ear while shouting out slogans in the hope of social change.
The boys take a desperate chance because they know nothing other than desperation. “We don’t have anything to lose now” Jun-seok points out, but immediately contradicts himself in claiming that he never wants to lose the “dream” of his Taiwanese paradise. Dreams are however also something which plague him, visions of accidentally causing the deaths of those close to him or scenes of blood and ghosts followed by the melancholy image of a friend finally returning. The tragedy is that the heist comes off without a hitch, they do everything right, but they’ve made a fatally naive mistake. In trying to cover their tracks, they swipe the CCTV footage, little knowing that the hard drives also host extremely valuable information regarding the casino’s police-backed VIP money laundering operation which is why they find themselves “hunted” by a cruel and relentless gunman. In over their heads, the guys think this is about the money and maybe they can just give it back, never knowing that they’re sitting on something much more valuable or why it is they’re really being chased.
“This isn’t the world you used to live,” Jun-seok is warned once again, “no matter where you are, you cannot escape”. Han (Park Hae-soo), the relentless hunter, becomes an omnipresent threat fused with the shadows as a representative of the societal corruption which cannot it seems be overcome. Shiny LCD screens pepper the landscape as a grim reminder of a possible future, the tech giant of the world now a lawless wasteland filled with derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, a corrupt police state in which the police is the biggest gang and the man owns the streets. Jun-seok dreams of an island paradise where everything is calm and airy, he owns a small shop repairing bicycles, and goes fishing on the beach. Such a wholesome future is more than he could ever expect to gain, but eventually he realises that you can’t escape the spectre of control by refusing to face it and the only way to be free in your own personal paradise is to exorcise your demons so you need not fear the darkness.
Time to Hunt is currently available to stream worldwide via Netflix.
International trailer (English subtitles)