The Tiger (MA) (South Korea Film)

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Review bThe_Tiger_An_Old_Hunter's_Tale_poster.jpegy Aaron Rourke.

Purposefully grounded by a richly-textured central character, played with great strength by Korean superstar Choi Min-sik (of Old Boy fame), The Tiger is a gorgeously filmed, impressively mounted epic that enthralls and engages, despite some thinly conceived characterisations and unexplored sub-plots. Along with its historical trappings, there are also a number of brutal, heart-pounding attack scenes, perpetrated by a largely convincing, CGI-created tiger, an imposing creature that strikes a believable amount of fear into the people that have to confront it.

Set in and around the year 1921, the story opens with hunters being killed by a huge tiger (whom we barely see), a legendary creature that lives in the snow-covered woods located on the famous Jirisan Mountain. Incensed at this homegrown beast’s ability to defeat anything thrown at it, Government official Maezono (Ren Osugi) instructs his Korean-born military officer Ryu (Won Jung-suk) to employ the greatest hunter in the region, Chun Man-duk (Choi Min-sik), to rid the occupied country of this seemingly invincible force. Man-Duk refuses, as he wants to concentrate on raising his young son Sun-yi (Hyun Seung-min), a task dear to him after his wife died in tragic circumstances. Due to Man-duk turning down Maezono’s proposal, local rivals Goo-gyeong (Jung Man-sik) and Chil-goo (Kim Sang-ho) are hired instead, but as the confrontations between man and beast become increasingly dangerous (and bloody), the world-weary Man-duk, pushed by incidents beyond his control, will have to enter the battlefield.

The first half mainly deals with the local population, and how each one attempts to survive under the oppressive rule of the Japanese military and is undermined by frustratingly underwritten characters. Many of the Japanese soldiers are one-dimensional, presented as straight-forward antagonists rather than deeper, historically relevant figures that had a notorious effect on the country of Korea. Even the emerging relationship between Chun Man-duk and his young son takes a little while to warm to, as some of the more comedic moments feel somewhat forced.

While the film is entertaining to this point, it is when we see what ties Man-duk and the mythical beast together that The Tiger improves dramatically, with a thoughtful exploration of man’s connection to nature, and how the actions of one life form can effect the outcome of another.

One can also see a nationalistic layer to the story, with a proud Korean respecting and then tapping into the unstoppable, raging energy of a vengeful entity, determined to protect the nation from a villainous invading force. Not as overtly jingoistic as the recent The Admiral: Roaring Currents (which despite its indulgent flag-waving is still a grandly entertaining, excitingly staged adventure), the thread of national pride never really dissipates. What is kept front and centre however is an involving battle of mind and spirit, fought between two battered opponents who have suffered losses both personal and geographical.

Though the CGI effects for the main tiger are of a high standard, with moments that are genuinely eye-popping, other effects tend to vary. Scenes containing baby tiger cubs are perfectly acceptable, but a sequence where a pack of wolves are introduced is jarring at best, but at least it is the only time where the CGI is obvious and sub-standard.

Thankfully writer/director Park Hong-joon doesn’t go completely overboard with the use of computer-generated technology, and shoots on actual snowy locations (or large-scale sets), cleverly leveling out the audience’s reaction to what’s real and what’s virtual. The film would have had an overwhelmingly artificial feel if Hong-joon had just filmed his cast in front of green screens. Like the Oscar-nominated The Revenant, shooting in difficult areas and conditions makes the actors’ physical journey seem tangible and credible.

Visually, The Tiger looks stunning. Lee Mo-gae, who has been the regular cinematographer of director Kim Jee-Woon (I Saw The Devil), provides images that are worthy of an Academy Award. The music score by Jo Jung-wook, particularly the main orchestral theme, is genuinely moving and adds to, instead of distractingly detracting from, some emotionally charged sequences.

Choi Min-sik is simply magnificent, bringing every scar, ache, and wrinkle to life. He ensures that Man-duk becomes a very real part of the harsh landscape, making us understand why he is so deliberately closed-off from the townsfolk around him, and why he is afraid to see his son step into a world of hatred and violence. Like his character’s connection to mother nature, Min-sik seems perfectly matched to play this particular role.

There is good support from Sang-ho (who co-starred in the harrowing Haemoo, one of the best films released in 2015), and Jung Man-sik (who appeared in the terrific cop action/comedy/drama Veteran), former hunting colleagues of Man-duk who have very divisive views on the natural world they work in and profit from. Seasoned actor Ren Osugi is effectively loathsome, but Maezono is nothing more than an old-fashioned villain whose sole purpose is to get our blood boiling, nothing more. Won Jung-suk has little to do as Ryu, a pity since his character, ostracised by both Koreans and Japanese, could have been one of the film’s most interesting creations.

After a disappointingly brief, one-week run in local cinemas, this brilliantly crafted, dramatically satisfying film (after its sketchy first act) shows us what big-screen entertainment should be, and once it hits DVD (and hopefully Blu-Ray), a wider audience will be able to appreciate its many virtues, and see why South Korea continues to be one of the most talked-about countries in regards to cinematic output.

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