Following historical drama The Showdown and gangster picture New World, Hoon-jung Park’s third feature is a suitably epic drama set during the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1925. The Tiger is an often moving fable about fatherhood, nature and respect, yet in never fully committing to its ambitions, doesn’t quite the impact that it might have.
Chun Man-duk (Min-Sik Choi) is an old hunter, retired from killing and now eking out a living gathering herbs for the local apothecary. Across several flashbacks, it is revealed that his wife was killed in accident, leaving Chun with his son, Seok (Yoo-Bin Sung), to raise on his own. Meanwhile, the Japanese army are an occupying force. Governor-General Maezono (Ren Ôsugi) is obsessed with hunting down Korea’s near-extinct tigers, pouring a ludicrous amount of resources into killing the huge male tiger living on Mount Jirisan, known by Chun as ‘The Lord of the Mountain’.
A display of cultural dominance as well as ego, the elimination of the tiger represents Japan’s conquest over Korea. The animal’s refusal to be taken quietly is a clear statement of political resistance, its slaughter of literally dozens of Japanese soldiers in the film’s final act almost rendering The Tiger as a postcolonial revenge film. It’s one of the film’s more intriguing qualities, yet its political bite is softened by a broader emphasis on themes that feel like one part Disney fairytale and two-parts melodrama.
This leads to a jarring depiction of the tiger itself – arguably the film’s real protagonist – that is at once hyper-realistic in appearance, supernatural in its ferocity, and annoyingly sentimental in its behaviour. It’s as if Park couldn’t decide if his beast should represent the real tragedy of Korea’s extinct tigers or embody an elemental force not bound by realism, so he doubled-down on both. Depictions of the tiger’s relationship with Chun are as moving as the animal’s tearing through scores of hunters is exhilarating, but the ponderous pacing and unclear motivations of key characters squanders the depth that these scenes suggest.
Visually, the film is an odd mix of gorgeous, rich colours and workmanlike compositions, chopped up by numerous flashbacks that increasingly tell rather than show the emotive beats of the story. The CGI tiger is very convincing, but the same sadly can’t be said for the other forest-dwelling animals. A scene where a pack of wolves drag someone off, in particular looks pretty ropey.
Many of The Tiger’s elements simply don’t gel, and its 140-minute run time feels borne of ponderousness than narrative necessity. Nevertheless, Park’s third feature is a movingly grand drama – a broad brush-strokes fable, at once a moral tale about respect for nature and an affecting re-appropriation of a painful period of Korean history.