Ah, the hunt for elusive, legendary animals. It's one of the oldest premises for fiction out there, due in no small part to the effortless and easily relatable allegory found within each one. The prolonged search for these beasts of folklore -- often merely a larger or otherwise glorified version of more readily catchable animals -- speaks to the pursuit of success found in most people, setting a goal that's inherent difficult to achieve and prone to driving the seekers mad. Depending on the story, these stories can also delve into the kinship between man and nature, the tenuous balance between beings with common, somewhat primitive goals and perceptions about the territory in which they inhabit. South Korea's The Tiger sets its sights on this aspect within the space of a two-plus hour period drama, and while an exceptional performance from Choi Min-sik, engaging visual effects, and meaningful ruminations on family give it plenty of substance to chew on, it's also far too grim and heavy-handed to savor its intents.
Granted, there's a reason that the tone ends up being so severe, since The Tiger centers on an effort in the early '20s to eradicate all of the great cats from Japanese-ruled Korea. With the persistence of local hunters, the numbers have dwindled on Mt. Jirisan to the single digits, yet the enduring spirit of the wilderness -- the Mountain Lord, a massive, half-blind tiger often seen as a sort of godly embodiment -- evades their many tactics. An aging, retired hunter, Chun Man-duk (Choi Min-sik), often referenced as one of the greatest hunters in the region, also lives with his son in the domain of the tiger, yet he constantly refuses to engage in the hunt for the Mountain Lord. Soon, no other tigers are left in the region but this figure of folktale, whose capture -- and death -- nets an incredible reward. Reluctantly, Chun Man-duk gets involved with the search, pitting the hunter against the demons of his past and against the tiger that, at one time, forever altered his life.
Often carrying the subtitle An Old Hunter's Tale, The Tiger echoes the fabled hunter's voyage of "Moby Dick" within a stark wilderness atmosphere and historical backbone, focused on the harsh, earthen landscape while building up the legacy of the Mountain Lord. Speaking to the Korean culture's affinity with the tiger, the film quickly sets up the unconquerable beast of legend as the sympathetic victim and, in a way, the story's champion: the spirit of the mountain and its people resisting against the Japanese rule. Intricate, layered visual effects breathe life into the Mountain Lord, accentuating his intense presence and furious movement throughout the grim forested domain, yet without capturing the full breadth of the realistic aspects of the tiger's body language. What results is a snarling, imposing force of digital wizardry whose overt ferocity illusion, missing the sort of raw life present in, say, Shere Khan of Disney's recent live-action Jungle Book.
Not unlike The Revenant, which was released theatrically around the same time, The Tiger embarks upon a drawn-out, intentionally unpleasant depiction of the hunt for the remaining cats throughout Mt. Jirisan, casting a grim shadow over the father-son drama between Chun Man-duk and his sixteen-year-old, Seok. The expressive, honest eyes and lumbering movement of Oldboy's Choi Min-sik form into a weatherworn ghost of the hunter's old self, whose reasons for the disinterest in pursuing the Mountain Lord -- animals in general -- remains a mystery as other scarred, frustrated hunters fail in their attempts to do so. Their unyielding efforts to rid the forest of all tigers creates a downhearted tone in itself, but this Old Hunter's Tale deliberately and aggressively pushes the boundaries in doing so, revealed in the desperate and heartless tactics employed by local hunters and by the Japanese military to extinguish the symbolic spirit of the wilderness. Observing how they do so overreaches with this heavy-handed drama, bolstered by bitter, clear-cut parallels between humans and the animal kingdom in their parenting.
Against the backdrop of a snowy forest soaked in blood due to the Mountain Lord's vicious brushes with his attackers, The Tiger does succeed in carefully and extensively setting up the reasons that the Old Hunter ultimately agrees to track the legendary tiger, hinged on their complicated, primal connection. There's a meaningful backbone to the narrative spun by Park Hoon-Jung -- who wrote and directed the incredibly sharp gangster film New World -- that revolves around heritage, family, and guilt, but these general ruminations extend across over two hours of threadbare plotting with a limited number of pathways to go down. Not enough happens within the hunter and tiger's parallel stories to keep the drama moving forward at an engaging pace for its lengthy runtime, instead relying on story's spread-out, heartrending developments and affecting flashbacks to build up its somber presence toward an all-too familiar embodiment of the hunter-hunted kinship. It's an old tale we've seen and heard before, and The Tiger's historical context and downhearted reflections can't change its stripes enough to hide that.
Video and Audio:
Well Go USA continues their trek to gather together quality high-definition presentations of contemporary lesser-seen Asian films with this gritty, sharp glimpse at The Tiger, framed at 2.35:1 within a 1080p AVC transfer. Three shades are most important in this depiction of tiger hunting in the early-'20s: the crisp whiteness of the snow stays vivid but not too bright so as to push out details; the dark tans and browns of rural living, wood grains, and garments are appropriately dark and natural; and splashes of blood lean more muted and wine-shaded against the orange of tiger's fur, remaining deep yet discernible. Lots of fine detail can be spotted in the tigers' coats and piercing eyes, as well as within the hunter's weatherworn clothing. Contrast enhances depth during daytime shots and produces dim purple and deep gray black levels at night. The brisk movement of the tiger in digital effects sports a somewhat jerky 24p flow at many points, though, and there's some noise and washed-out black levels in those nighttime sequences, but The Tiger still looks comparatively majestic on Blu-ray.
The Korean 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track alternates between subdued, dialogue-driven sequences and furious bursts of brutal animal action throughout its two-hour span, and both side of the sonic treatment stand strong in Well Go USA's track. The firing of muskets -- among louder explosions -- fill the surround channels with tight, if slightly higher-pitched firmness, while also reaching into the lower-end side of things for deep, rich bass response. Snarls, lunges, and other ... uh, visceral elements of the tiger's attacks project a substantial amount of heft and clarity, allowing the more horrific elements of the film to land their intended effect. Dialogue remains largely serviceable, well-balanced and comfortable in the front end of the surround track, while more subtle effects -- the higher pitched growl and pitter-patter of tiger cubs, for instance -- are discernible and clean. The Korean subtitles are decent enough, sporting only a few grammatical issues here and there, though the titles do spell Korea with C instead of a K throughout.
Only a brief Trailer (1:28, 16x9 HD).
South Korea's The Tiger boasts a stark wooded atmosphere, tense animal ferocity, and potent historical context involving the association between hunting down tigers and the Japanese-Korean relationship in the 1920s, aptly recalling other successful man-vs.-nature film out there. For every advance it makes, however, it pushes too far with its burdensome tone and lags behind with a story that isn't layered enough to justify two hours of said tone, despite the heartening performance from Choi Min-sik and the fierce tiger visual effects. Certainly worthy of a Rental, but it's tough to imagine embarking on this hunt again.