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‘Squid Game’ star Lee Jung-jae makes his directorial debut at Cannes
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CANNES, France — Lee Jung-jae, the award-winning star of Netflix’s “Squid Game,” spent years developing the 1980s Korean spy thriller “Hunt” before choosing to direct himself. He did it a little reluctantly, without big plans to continue the cinema. But Lee had a vision for what it could be — and where it could premiere.

“Before I decided to direct, I thought I just wanted to make a really fun movie,” Lee says. “After I got my hands on it and started writing the script myself, I wanted to come to Cannes. Because I wanted to come to Cannes, I had to find the subject that would resonate with global audiences.

Few actors are better at capturing the attention of global audiences than Lee. Already one of Korea’s top movie stars, Lee, 49, is at the heart of the ‘Squid Game’ phenomenon, starring in the dystopian series which – subtitles and all – has become Netflix’s most-watched show in some 90 countries.

Now Lee is in Cannes for the premiere of “Hunt,” which plays in Cannes’ midnight section and is being bought for international distribution. The film will test how far Lee can expand his already borderless career. Earlier this year, Lee signed with Hollywood powerhouse CAA. And he concedes he has Hollywood ambitions.

“Working in Hollywood would definitely be a good experience for me,” Lee said in an interview at Cannes shortly before “Hunt” premiered. “If there was a good fit for me, a good character, I would really like to join. But right now, I feel like global audiences want more Korean content and TV shows and movies made in Korea. So I would also work in Korea very diligently. I may sound a bit greedy, but if there was a role for me in Hollywood, I would really like to do it too.

But while Lee’s rise to the ranks of an increasingly well-known actor in the world typifies the power of Korea’s pop culture today, his film is set in an earlier, less harmonious chapter of the Korean history. “Hunt” takes place several years after South Korean President Park Chung-hee was assassinated in 1979 by the head of Korea’s Central Intelligence Agency, a coup that ushered in Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship. . “Hunt” is loosely based on his subsequent 1983 assassination attempt orchestrated by North Korea.

“The 1980s in Korea were our fastest growing years ever,” says Lee. “But democracy didn’t develop as much because there was a military dictatorship and the media was under total government control. So I heard a lot from the older generation and my parents about these government controls. I also witnessed university protests.

“Hunt” captivatingly follows a pair of agents (one played by Lee, the other by Jung Woo-sung) who are both tasked with uncovering a North Korean mole within the agency. Lee – not content with dipping his toe into a modest directorial debut – proves adept at mounting large-scale action sequences and arranging a dense plot while managing to maintain the suspense.

“A lot of people told me I should change the setting for now,” Lee said, speaking through an interpreter. “But in the 1980s there was a lot of control over information and people were trying to take advantage of fake news and misinformation. I think it still exists now in 2022. There are still groups trying to take advantage of these information and propaganda controls.

“We now live in a globalized and connected world,” he adds. “We don’t have silos between us. If there is a problem or a problem, we all have to work on it to overcome it.

Lee is often asked how his life has changed since “Squid Game” by Western reporters who may be less familiar with his nearly three decades as a star in Korea in movies like “An Affair,” “New World,” and “The Housemaid”. ”

Lee laughs. “It’s only natural because a lot of people in the West maybe didn’t know me before ‘Squid Game’.”

That is changing quickly, however. Lee will return for the second season of “Squid Game,” which series creator Hwang Dong-hyuk says should be due in 2023 or 2024. The first season has already led to Lee becoming the first Asian actor to win the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Male Performer. Lee was so taken aback—apart from considering himself an outsider, he’s a big fan of “Succession”—that he never managed to get out the speech he had written in his pocket.

“It remains,” Lee said smiling and shaking his head, “it seems like a dream to me.”

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