AKA: The Tiger
Director: Park Hoon-Jung
Writer: Park Hoon-Jung
Producer: Park Min-Jung, Han Jae-Duk
Cast: Choi Min-Sik, Jeong Man-Sik, Kim Sang-Ho, Sung Yoo-Bin, Ren Osugi, Jung Suk-Won, Ra Mi-Ran, Yoo Jae-Myung, Kim Hong-Fa, Woo Jung-Kook, Park In-Soo, Lee Eun-Woo
Running Time: 139 min.
By Paul Bramhall
In 2015 Korean history was a hot topic, mainly due to President Park Geun-hye’s hugely unpopular decision to replace all high school history text books, currently produced by private publishers, with anonymously written government-issued ones by 2017. The decision is largely looked at as one which will whitewash much of the countries less pleasant history, and lead to an education system much like Japan’s, in which anything that presents the country in a negative light will be conveniently glazed over. While the newly authored books are still being written, it seems that the current trend for historical revisionism in Korea has already become apparent in its mainstream cinematic output.
Recent productions such as Ode to my Father, The Admiral: Roaring Currents, and Northern Limit Line, all play fast and loose with historical facts to paint a picture of a Korean national identity which is unwaveringly patriotic and pure of heart. How long this trend will continue for is difficult to answer, however with two of the three titles mentioned holding their place in the top five most successful Korean movies of all time, it’s safe to say it’ll continue for a while.
The Tiger has Choi Min-sik on patriotic duty again, after his star turn as the revered Admiral Yi Sun-shin in the previous years The Admiral: Roaring Currents. This time he’s under the direction of Park Hoon-jeong, the man responsible for writing and directing The New World (which also starred Min-sik), as well as penning the scripts for the likes of The Unjust and I Saw the Devil. Min-sik, as expected, proves to be the perfect fit for the role of a rugged tiger hunter, both conveying a sense of authority and world weariness from under his hulking frame, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else as the character.
The tale is set in 1935 under Japan’s occupation of Korea, and revolves around Min-sik’s hunter, who’s been retired since his wife passed away. The Japanese have set about killing every native Korean animal they can find, on the orders of a bloodthirsty commander played by Ren Osugi (recognizable from many pre-2000 Miike Takashi and Beat Takeshi movies), who has a particular liking for displaying stuffed Korean tigers. When the tiger population is completely wiped out except for one, a one-eyed male whose ferocity is legendary, Min-sik finds himself in a dilemma – let the Japanese eventually find and kill it, or give it the dignity of a Korean hunter sending it off into tiger heaven?
There are of course other plot threads introduced throughout, such as the son of Min-sik’s character wanting to marry a girl from the nearby town, however the narrative never strays far from the central goal of killing the tiger. This is of course the movies first big challenge, in that with such a simplistic plot, there is never any doubt that proceedings are going to finish with a Min-sik vs. tiger confrontation. Just like we know Titanic will end with it sinking, the important part becomes about the journey that will take us to that point. Weighing in with an epic 140 minute runtime, you’d hope that Hoon-jeong has a strong narrative structure in place to keep us gripped until the penultimate showdown.
Unfortunately, it becomes apparent some time before the mid-way point that this isn’t the case. Hoon-jeong weighs his script down with a numerous pieces of dialogue depicting Min-sik’s dedication to the mountain that he resides on, constantly mumbling such words of wisdom as “It’s up to the mountain now” and “We must respect the mountain”. The heaviness of his character is in stark contrast to the two dimensional treatment the Japanese antagonists are given. Once again, as was the issue with The Admiral: Roaring Currents, the Japanese are portrayed as almost cartoon like villains, and by the end of the movie are recklessly blowing up whole forests while murdering any animal they come across. The only Japanese character given even a hint of humanity, is a high ranking officer played by Jeong Sok-won, who’s looked down upon for being a native Korean. Subtly isn’t a word which applies to The Tiger.
From a technical standpoint however, the movie is a gorgeous affair, with stunning cinematography of the Korean mountains, and the tiger itself comes in the form a particularly impressive CGI creation. It’s not perfect, but the technology has certainly come a long way from the CGI tiger found in 2011’s War of the Arrows. While the tiger may look and move remarkably naturally, its instincts seem anything but, armed with an amazing ability to single out Japanese officers and subject them to the grizzliest deaths. The actions of the title animal become increasingly ridiculous, and equal parts laughable, the more the movie chugs towards its finale, as it gains the ability to rescue Koreans from a pack of hungry wolves, and seemingly drop by to visit Min-sik at will.
Working with such an epic scope appears to work against Hoon-jeong’s directorial style, as several other instances that stretch believability pop up with a disengaging regularity throughout. The reason behind the death of Min-sik’s wife isn’t revealed until around the mid-way point, however what should be a revelatory moment is quickly squandered by the contrived nature of the reveal. With the Japanese having spent so much time emphasising how vast the mountain area is, the sudden appearance of three key players convening in the same spot by chance goes against everything the narrative has established thus far. It’s moments like this which do damage to Min-sik’s dedicated performance, laden with a director who, while evidently a talented storyteller based on past efforts, seems to have bitten off more than he can chew here.
In the last hour things really go off the rails, as it consists of an increasingly frustrating series of false climaxes, each one seemingly bringing the movie to its close, before revealing that it’s still not over. By the time the Japanese army find themselves being stalked by the tiger, it almost feels like we’re watching a sequel to Predator. The beast is briefly glimpsed speeding through the shadows, and before you know it arms are being ripped off, bodies are randomly falling out of trees, and the only thing missing is Bill Duke turning up with a mini-gun. Even when the tiger has been riddled with countless bullets, it still seems relatively unfazed, like any true Korean tiger should be.
By this point it seems to have made the decision itself to die at the hands of a Korean, so strolls off to meet with Min-sik for a session of exchanging intense stares set to a sweeping choral soundtrack. In fact the choral soundtrack plays in every scene involving Min-sik and the tiger during the last hour, practically demanding that we feel their emotional connection to each other. Unfortunately, at least for a non-Korean audience, the feeling of forced emotions is one that permeates throughout the production. There are scenes at the beginning which seem like they were filmed purely to be used as flashback fodder later on, and sure enough they are. It’s this type of blatant commercial filmmaking that earmarks these recent Korean productions, which come with a checkbox list of histrionics, two dimensional foreign villains, and self-sacrificing heroes.
While The Tiger continues to deliver the high end production values we’ve become accustomed to from Korean cinema, it also long outstays its welcome. At one point, the Japanese commander yells at one of his soldiers – “How can it be such a hard battle?” With such an epic runtime, trying to get to the end of The Tiger will likely result in you asking yourself the same question.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10