The Tiger (Cert 15)
1 Disc DVD (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 140 minutes approx.
I must preface this review by explaining that the only place you can buy this DVD in the UK is in Sainsburys, this being an exclusive release to them. Quite a surprising and bold move for a boutique label like Eureka, but it does widen their market exposure. On the plus side at just £7.99, you can also buy some popcorn and drink and not bankrupt yourself either!
Directed by Park Hoon-jung who gave us the ultra-violent thriller I Saw The Devil and the epic crime thriller New World, the setting for The Tiger is Japan occupied Korea (or Corea according to the subtitles, the apparent real spelling) in 1925. In the lofty climes of Mount Jirisan, over seen by Japanese General Maezono (Ren Osugi) lives the legend of the Mountain Lord, a fierce tiger feared and venerated by the locals.
Keen to maintain control over the Koreans, Maezeno collects the pelts of sacred animals and has set his sights on the elusive Mountain Lord. A group of native hunters have been forced into tracking the tiger down in exchange for food and more importantly their lives. Led by the vengeful Gu-kyung (Jeong Man-Sik) the hunters are not having much luck so they try to persuade former hunter Chun Man-Duk (Choi Min-shik) for help.
The subject of the Japanese Occupation of Korea has yielded quite a few films over the past few years, with the approach ranging from the supernatural to the straight up patriotic riposte. On the surface The Tiger is about man vs. beast but look a little deeper and a metaphor for the resilience and fighting spirit of the Korean people in the face of foreign oppression comes to view.
But there is a twist and that is that it is the tiger himself who embodies this spirit more than the human representatives of Korea, protecting its home and family from the threat of death. Despite being a fearsome beast that can rip a man to shreds without blinking, and does so many times in graphic detail, it is not difficult to root for the striped behemoth and take some pleasure in seeing a human neck torn apart.
Look a little further still and one can see parallels with Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke and to some extent Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Winds, sharing the similar idea that it is possible for man and animal to live together in the same environment, with neither having rightful possession of it. Park Hoon-jung doesn’t explore the latter notion too much but is very much in tune with the former.
This brings us to Chun Man-Duk who is more integral to the story than the earlier synopsis suggests. The film opens with him navigating the snowy mountains for dinner to feed his wife and young son when he is approached by an angry tiger. A guns shot rings out and after the opening titles we jump forward to over a decade later where Man-Duk is now a herbalist and his son Seok (Sung Yoo-bin) is now sixteen years-old and wanting to follow in his father’s hunter footsteps.
Man-Duk’s wife (Lee Eun-Woo) was killed during an accident that many have linked the tiger to, with Gu-kyung using this as a means to galvanise his emotions and pick up the rifle again. Instead, Seok joins the hunting party but tragedy has an annoying habit of picking its victims on a whim, dragging Man-Duk out of retirement, but for different reasons.
As the film progresses the more it reveals the true depth of the story and its intentions as a polemic about man and nature. Through flashbacks incidents from the past are explored in full, including what happened after Man-Duk opened fire at the start of the film, altering our understanding of the situation and where our sympathies lay – what was once black is now white and what was confused is now clear, our emotional investment now fully secured.
Pin pointing the antagonist of the story becomes deliberately clouded, but this is necessary in getting the main thrust of the message across without being too didactic for those looking to enjoy the tense drama and visceral gore on offer. Even if you don’t want to engage your brain, the vital exposition of the prior relationship between Man-Duk and the tiger should still resonate with its poignancy.
It’s no surprise the tiger is CGI but what a fantastic job they SFX team have done. Incredibly realistic in movement and form, under the instruction of a local wildlife expert, the tiger is often more human than the real humans in the scenes with its cubs, who are equally adorable. In one terrifying moment Seok is hiding behind a tree and the tiger quietly and menacingly appears behind him – a real pants wetter for the viewer too!
Korean legend Choi Min-Shik is always a reliable and has reached that point in his career where he is both a marquee name and possessor of veteran gravitas both of which are on display here. Man-Duk is forced to run the gamut of emotions as his character is tested by both man and beast, real and CGI and Choi rises to the occasion in true mesmerising fashion.
Aided by a sterling support cast and gorgeous photography of the wondrous landscapes that are screaming out for a Blu-ray presentation, there is plenty to keep the audience engaged and invested in this unique morality tale. However, the 140-minute runtime is a little excessive and the first hour could do with a trim; the slow world and character building meets its objective but could have been done in half the time.
Eureka can’t be blamed for wanting to expand their commercial horizons and whilst The Tiger is a great film capable of achieving this, it is also too good to be subject to a limited release. An epic and stunningly visual slice of Korean cinema with a very human and humane story at its heart.
Rating – ****
Man In Black