Though South Korea has really come into its own as an economic and cultural superpower to be reckoned with in the past three decades, inequality and discontent exists there just like in any country. There is actually a term for this discontent: Hell Joseon. It is often used as a hashtag and has even sparked a whole subreddit devoted to manifestations of this concept. It is used to refer to everything from the fact that even a top-notch university education isn’t a guarantee for a brighter future or the fact that Koreans work far longer and harder hours than people in most other countries do. Though the “Hell Joseon” sentiment isn’t explicitly mentioned in this movie, it is tangibly in the foreground of not just Time to Hunt but in other recent Korean films such as Lee Chang-dong’s Burning and Bong Joon-ho’s much lauded Parasite.
In Time to Hunt, this concept of Hell Joseon is taken to its darkest extreme. The value of the Korean won has collapsed, and with it, the economy. As a result of this, Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik) and Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) struggle to survive day by day. When their friend Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon) gets out of prison for taking the fall in a robbery, he realizes he and his friends have no future, especially since the Korean won they stole is practically worthless now. They plan a heist of a casino where one of their friends works at, which deals exclusively in US dollars. Though they might get away with the money, their crime puts them in the sights of a dangerous mercenary Han (Park Hae-soo) and the film quickly becomes falls into the plot of “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Much of the appeal of Time to Hunt is the imagination put into this post-apocalyptic world. Though the only concrete detail we get is that the economy has collapsed, director Yoon Sung-hyun has clearly taken cues from many post-apocalyptic films such as 28 Days Later and Children of Men. Often, audiences tend to overlook the fact that post-apocalyptic films are essentially fantasy movies, leaving plenty of opportunities for world-building even if there are no castles and dragons. The cinematography by Lim Wong-eun makes daylight seem grim and darkness seem almost welcome in comparison. South Korea is also known for its densely populated cities, so seeing giant apartment buildings totally abandoned and the streets devoid of people is shocking to anyone familiar with the country from experience or from depictions in the media.
Time to Hunt stays true to little details like how two of the young men know how to properly shoot guns due to their experience in South Korea’s mandatory military service. This gives rise to some very well-staged action sequences with realistic stakes. Han falls in a long line of unstoppable killers such as the Terminator or Anton Chigurh, and his presence gives Time to Hunt a breathless intensity, even when he isn’t actively chasing them. Thanks to the performances, we also feel for the main characters even though they are very rough around the edges. Their behavior is understandable and their desperation is brought about by external factors. Though they are very single-minded in their goal, Yoon allows for some complexity in the characters. Choi Wooshik’s character, for example, is still a loyal son and stays behind to check on his family, even though Han is still after them.
Despite the proficiency of Yoon Sung-hyun’s direction, Time to Hunt doesn’t exactly break new ground in the Korean action genre. It could have gone a lot further with the social commentary, perhaps by focusing on other characters despite the main young men. We don’t get a sense of the society outside of their point of view, even though a different perspective could have really enriched this movie. The hints that Yoon gives of this world are interesting enough that he could easily set more stories in this world in totally different genres. As an action movie though, Time to Hunt is still quite serviceable despite having the potential to be so much more than just that.