Loosely drawing from historical circumstances, a period piece made by one of modern Asian cinema’s most exciting directors delivers in almost every department. Mark Fraser looks at a scrumptious work produced in a country where the film industry arguably deserves a wider international audience.
Park Hoon-jung’s 2015 South Korean rural epic The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale is the kind of movie one might get if Akira Kurosawa’s 1975 Dersu Uzala was crossed with Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2011).
On paper this combination sounds like it could be something of an aesthetic mish-mash given it suggests the merging of a modestly straightforward (and rather old school) story telling technique with splashy New Hollywood sensibilities.
This is, however, exactly what The Tiger offers – it is not only a highly principled film laced with tear-jerking sentiment, a healthy dose of pathos, some violence (which, admittedly, the Kurosawa work doesn’t contain) and a strong sense of morality, but is also one that embraces the values of a big budget studio production, particularly when it comes to the use of extensive computer-generated images (CGI).
In essence, it is an adult fairy tale about greed, growing old, regret and how colonising cultures corrupt and destroy the established traditions of the lands they choose to plunder, using an almost Disneyesque methodology to underpin the narrative.
Unlike the Kurosawa movie though – which chronicles the dotage of the titular character (Maxim Munzuk), an eastern Siberian nomad who rescues the Russian Captain Arseniev (Yury Solomin) in the wilderness during 1902, but is then unable to adapt to city life after being taken in by the soldier’s family in Khabarovsk – The Tiger remains firmly entrenched in a rustic setting as it follows noble Korean mountain man/hunter Chun Man-duk (Choi Min-sik)*, who has to deal with the guilt of accidently killing his wife Mal-nyeon (Lee Eun-woo) some years before, the coming of age of his restless 16 year-old teenage son Seok (Sung Yoo-bin) and the invading Japanese circa 1915-1925.
He also has to live with the fact that – earlier in the piece while one of the country’s most talented marksman – he killed the mother of the titular tiger, now known as “the mountain lord of Mount Jirisan”, when the beast was a cub. Unable to inflict the same fate upon the offspring and its sibling, Man-duk hides them in an isolated cave on Jirisan, one of the nation’s most sacred mountains, to which he delivers freshly captured game for food.
Although a piece of exposition set in 2015 shows the woodsman at his most content (his wife is still alive and he is developing a close bond with his only child), cut to a decade later and it’s a completely different story.
Still grieving for Mal-nyeon, Man-duk has put down his gun, started drinking heavily and grows/gathers medicinal herbs, which he sells to the local quack (Hong-pa Kim) in a nearby village.
His son, while still fond of the old man, has become a bit of a recalcitrant – partly because he wants to marry Sun-yi (Hyun Seung-min) and, to a lesser degree, is yearning for a bit more excitement in his life. After all, following his cranky and aging father through the snow-covered forest as they looks for plants with healing qualities isn’t really doing it for him.
To make matters worse, the occupying Japanese are hell bent on capturing all of the country’s tigers – not only for the pelts, but to break Korea’s collective spirit given the animal’s role as “the centre of its culture” and the expectation its eventual destruction will foreshadow the end of national unity (as outlined in expertsure.com on November 24, 2008). It’s worth noting here that, as a matter of historical record, the last of the giant South Korean cats was nabbed in either 1922 or 1944 (expertsure.com again); the feline’s decimation very similar to that of the American buffalo in the 1800s, when the white pioneers targeted the beast not only for its profitable hide, but to break the spiritual backbone of the indigenous populace.
But back to the story: After unsuccessfully convincing Man-duk to join his own Japanese-sponsored hunting party as a tracker, erstwhile comrade Goo-gyeong (an absolutely terrific Man-sik Jeong) instead lures the gullible Seok into his fray, with the results being expectedly disastrous as the team proves no match for the magnificent creature as it angrily pounces and tears its way through its members in one of the movies’ major conflict sequences – a well-constructed CGI moment that is reminiscent of the wolf attacks upon the snow trapped plane crash survivors in The Grey.
Upon discovering his son’s death, the old man decides to end it all on an honourable note by venturing to Mt Jirisan alone to confront the cat on its own turf – a plot development reminiscent of the final moments in the Carnahan film, when final survivor John Ottway (Liam Neeson), in a moment of hopeless existential resolve, tackles the leader of the wolf lair head on.
Meanwhile, the Japanese authorities – led by government official Maezono (Ren Osugi) with the help of senior military officer Ryu (Seok-won Jeong) – bring in the artillery to see if they can flush the animal out from the freezing forest, an act of spectacular ferocity which causes far more environmental damage than it warrants.
As mentioned earlier, The Tiger has so many good things going for it that it really is worth a viewing by any movie buff who is interested in the evolution of modern cinema.
Everything about the film looks terrific – from Mo-gae Lee’s cinematography and Hwa-seong Jo’s meticulous production design to the costumes by Sang-gyeong Jo, which together evoke an era now long gone.
Even the CGIs which, judging by the credits, were put together under the direction of Ka Ryoon Kim are inoffensive to the eye, never looking too cartoonish despite their dominant presence during the two major action sequences.
For the lazy viewer, all it takes is a cursory surf around the Web to show just how interesting the South Korean film industry has become over the past two decades. Furthermore, many of the craftspeople and technicians involved with the making of The Tiger are now part of its current generation of creative talent.
Director/writer Hoon-jung is just one of these players, and while this reviewer has only seen one of his other works – that being 2013’s gangster opus New World – it is obvious he’s on top of his game. Having said this, one gripe about his modus operandi is the fact he tends to draw things out, with this movie arguably being 15 or so minutes longer than maybe it should be (a criticism which also applies to New World).
Aside with having some similarities with The Grey, a further just-as-useful comparison could be made between The Tiger and another snow-filled Hollywood epic that is analogous in terms of setting running time, and which – coincidently – was also released in December 2015.
The movie in question is Alejandro G Inarritu’s The Revenant, the Leonardo DiCaprio revenge yarn which garnered 12 Academy Award nominations (with costumes, make up, visual effects and production design all being acknowledged) and won cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki his third Oscar at the 2016 Los Angeles ceremony.
Had The Tiger, in some parallel universe, been nominated in the same categories for these awards, it would certainly have given its American counterpart a good run for its money.
*The names were sourced from the IMBd entry for the movie. Although a bit of double checking took place, there is still no doubt some mistakes. Establishing a consensus regarding this was a little frustrating. For instance, The Hollywood Reporter, in its January 2016 review of the film, provides variations on some of the names, as does Wikipedia. Needless to say, not knowing any Korean whatsoever hasn’t helped.
The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale was released by Eureka on Blu-ray and DVD in 2017.
Words by Mark Fraser
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