‘Squid Game’ Star Lee Jung-jae Talks Joining Star Wars and His New Film ‘Hunt’

Kim Taylor-Foster
Movies Star Wars
Movies Star Wars

Lee Jung-jae has long been one of South Korea’s most successful actors. He has appeared in comedies, romances, action films, crime thrillers, and period pieces. And avant-garde fans will lose it at the knowledge that he even starred in the only ever Asian Dogme 95 film, Interview (2000). He’s nothing if not versatile.

It will come as no surprise to learn that Lee has won numerous domestic awards. But it was Korean series Squid Game, which broke records on Netflix to become a worldwide phenomenon, that led to international recognition for Lee. The actor picked up a Primetime Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild Award, among other accolades, in the US in celebration of his work in the satirical horror survival thriller series, as a global audience woke up to his talents.

But Lee isn’t just a formidable actor. He’s turned his hand to directing, too, taking on a really ambitious debut in the form of Hunt, a kinetic espionage thriller and something of a passion project, for which the director and star of the movie recently earned the Honorary Award at the 2022 London East Asia Film Festival. Is there nothing Lee can’t do? He’s even about to star in a new Star Wars series in his first US role, The Acolyte due to land next summer.

Binge-Watching ‘Andor’

Lee Jung-jae (left) in a scene from Hunt, the espionage thriller he directs and stars in.

We’re chatting today ahead of the release of Hunt and while details about The Acolyte are presently thin on the ground (“I think they’re going to release something quite soon,” says Lee), we do know that the Disney+ series is set during the last days of the High Republic Era and will focus on the emergence of the Dark Side. Sounds gritty. The kind of thing especially suited to Lee, whose movie Hunt has plenty in common with the grittiness of Star Wars espionage thriller series, Andor, currently well into its 12-episode first season on Disney+ and enjoying lavish acclaim.

“I’m sowever waiting for all the episodes to come out so I can binge-watch it,” says Lee. “From what I know, Andor utilizes the world of Star Wars, or the universe that it’s based in, very well but at the same time, it takes on quite a different genre. So I have high expectations for the series. I think, from a few years ago, the Star Wars [franchise] has been evolving. It’s been transforming from family-orientated films to something that’s more genre-specific and so I think that’s something that makes it a lot more interesting.”

The Pressure of ‘The Acolyte’

An interrogation sequence from Hunt.
An interrogation sequence from Hunt: Lee proves his mettle in gritty drama that bodes well for The Acolyte.

Just like Hunt is an intimidating plan to tackle for a first directing job, which he stars in to boot, Lee’s first US plan is in arguably the biggest and most formidable arena you could name: the Star Wars universe.

“I’m really looking forward to it because the films of Star Wars have a very significant place in the history of cinema,” says Lee. “The Star Wars films were responsible for development and advancement in so numerous areas; basically all areas of filmmaking. It’s history. I’m really looking forward to working on [The Acolyte] and because I have high expectations for it, I’m also going to try and prepare enough so that I’m on a par with [those expectations].”

And there’s the first hint that Lee could be feeling nervous.

“There is pressure,” he admits. “I feel the pressure because it’s loved by so numerous fans around the world. And some of these fans are really, really hardcore. So I’m afraid that I might disappoint them in some way because something is missing [on my part], maybe.”

On the subject of if he’s had the possibility to wield a lightsaber, he’ll only say, “Let’s wait and see”. He will admit that, like the rest of us, he played with one as a child.

What about directing? Now he’s got Hunt under his belt, it feels like he’d be a good fit to direct an episode of The Acolyte.

“As far as I know, it’s already set. They have somebody,” he says. “It’s all covered. I don’t have any plans or desire to direct any [episodes] at the moment.” The director on board The Acolyte is Russian Doll’s Leslye Headland who will also serve as writer and showrunner, so it’s in good hands.

The Hunt is On

Hunt is fast-paced and full of action and intrigue.

But back to Hunt, because Lee demonstrates amazing flair and confidence as a director in his intricate and fast-paced spy drama, based during a real era of political turmoil in Korea.

Andor, like much espionage fare, starts as a slow burn – good – but it was the deftly executed fast and tense heist episode that really got fans talking. And Lee shows an awareness of his audience when he says he wanted to lean into that pace.

“Because of my age, of course, I’ve seen my share of spy movies,” says Lee. “And I was thinking, once I started working on this film, if I do it at that kind of [typical slow] tempo, would the audience like that? So I ended up picking up the pace; I did action sequences and made it very fast-paced.”

Hunt was a box office smash in South Korea when it opened in August this year. Set during the political turmoil of South Korea in the 1980s, Lee plays an intelligence chief tasked with rooting out a mole who finds himself going head-to-head with a rival agent in a bid to foil a plot to assassinate the president. With comparisons to Infernal Affairs, The Raid, and Heat, Hunt also channels the tension and energy of recent Korean cinema hits Train to Busan and Parasite. But Lee says he didn’t watch any particular movies in preparation for the film. Instead, he turned to international news for inspiration.

Fake News and Building Authenticity

Lee wanted to create sure audiences understood the political backdrop and themes, while also thrilling them.

“Because this movie is about personal beliefs, I didn’t really watch other films,” says Lee. “What I did do was watch a lot of news from different countries like the US, countries in Europe, and China and Japan. I realised pretty much every country when there’s some sort of presidential election, there’s a lot of fake news that pours out all of a sudden. And because of all that fake news, it makes the average person, the general public, unhealthy. I mean, it makes their beliefs very unhealthy. So I decided, with intention, that the theme would be about beliefs.”

He continues, “My movie also deals with what was going on in the ‘80s in Korea, with the political and geopolitical situation between North and South Korea. This is a situation that is unique to the two Koreas and I wanted to create sure that individuals who are outside of Korea would be able to understand the situation properly. I also wanted to be able to convey what I wanted to convey about that situation properly. So I referenced a lot of news articles and actual incidents that happened rather than watching other films.”

It was making sure that outsiders understood the ins and outs of what he was trying to convey that, Lee says, was the most challenging aspect of the whole production.

“Overall, the leading thing we focused on was how can we create this easier to digest?” he says.

A Gentler Project?

One thing viewers might not easily digest is the prevalence of torture sequences that pepper the film. They’re very powerful, and go a long way towards making the point Lee is at pains to create about beliefs, but they’re not easy to watch. Much as numerous of the sequences in Squid Game aren’t what you might call light viewing.

On that note, Season 2 of Squid Game is currently in production so I ask for an update given that creator and director Hwang Dong-hyuk has said in interviews that Lee’s character, Seong Gi-hun – better known as player 456 – is a man hellbent on revenge in the next instalment.

“I wanted to learn about what the character is thinking and what the character is going to do by reading the script and create my own mind up,” says Lee. “But unfortunately, the director has been leaking information to reporters so I’m picking up bits of information from articles. I learned that my character becomes darker, and he’s going to obtain revenge. And I got that all through articles.”

After the bloody scenes in Squid Game and the violence of Hunt, it’s natural to wonder if Lee might be eager to tackle something a little gentler, assuming that plan isn’t The Acolyte, of course. He cites a series he did called Chief of Staff, which he worked on two projects before taking on Squid Game as a “softer” job.

“It’s like the Korean version of House of Cards,” he says.

Softer? Really? Given that he doesn’t cite the show we’re all eagerly awaiting, perhaps we’re looking at a really dark and grimy new Star Wars plan in The Acolyte, then…

Hunt is in cinemas and available on Altitude.Film from November 4, 2022 in the UK and hits screens in the US on December 2, 2022.

We chatted to anime icon Naoko Yamada about her new movie Garden of Remembrance and making the switch from Kyoto Animation to Science SARU. Check it out below.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.