'The Tiger: An Old Hunter's Tale' ('Daeho'): Film Review

Courtesy of Contents Panda
An epic struggle of a virtuous man and a moral animal against an unjust world.

'The Admiral: Roaring Currents' and 'Lucy' star Choi Min-sik returns to action as a retired sharpshooter facing off against the last surviving tiger in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1925.

Swapping the 16th century naval battles of his previous blockbuster outing The Admiral: Roaring Currents with gun-slinging expeditions on a snow-capped mountain in the 1920s, Korean A-lister Choi Min-sik (of Lucy fame) puts in yet another turn as a rugged-and-ready hero in The Tiger: An Old Hunter's Tale. Teaming up again with director Park Hoon-jung, with whom he worked on the 2013 mobster drama New World, Choi breathes life into his role of a jaded ex-sharpshooter offering deliverance to an animal being hunted down by Japanese colonial forces and local mercenaries.

Just like Roaring Currents, a spectacle propelled toward its record-breaking glory through armored seamen flapping about in computer-generated set pieces, Choi's nuanced performance here is at times upstaged by action sequences involving the impressive digitally rendered tiger. The title alludes to the fact that the tiger is as much a protagonist here as the hunter: In the film, the four-legged "mountain lord" has a backstory to explain why it kills and the strategies it employs to finish the job, as well as extensive scenes chronicling how it mourns its dead kin.

While still boasting caricatured Japanese villains brimming with sadism and devoid of scruples — the primary antagonist here is a governor (Ren Osugi) who scorches earth and sacrifices locals to get at this one tiger eluding him — the film doesn't offer the unbridled nationalism in recent Korean blockbusters such as Roaring Currents or Northern Limit Line. Released in South Korea on Dec. 16, the film has only generated 1.7 million admissions, a modest figure compared to Roaring Currents (a record-breaking 17.3 million) or, for that matter, New World (4.3 million). But the film deserves more than its domestic takings or its limited release stateside since Jan. 8, as more exposure on airlines or home entertainment beckons.

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The Tiger is set in 1925, with Korea having already been under Japanese rule for more than two decades. Determined to crush the morale of the local population, the authorities — or, at least, the governor — is at work to exterminate the country's tigers, an animal seen as the embodiment of the Korean national spirit. But the plan has hit a snag: Casualties are mounting as soldiers fail in their attempts to kill a remaining streak on Jirisan, one of Korea's most sacred mountains.

As it happens, Jirisan is also the home of the film's protagonist, Man-duk (Choi), who — as shown in the film's prologue — was once the best and most dignified hunter in the region. By the time he is summoned to the governor's office in 1925, he has already become a wreck, a sickly widower who long ago traded in his shooting prowess for an alcohol-fueled existence. As Man-duk retreats into his stupor, other desperate hunters of more questionable skill come to the fore — namely a gang led by the callous Gu-kyung (Jeong Man-sik). They are soon joined by Man-duk's son Seok (Sung Yoo-bin), a teenager hoping to earn some money and pedigree so he can marry his sweetheart.

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Of course, Man-duk doesn't stay out of the picture for long. Shocked into sobriety when he realizes Seok has joined the deadly mission, the decommissioned hunter finally reawakens his old self when tragedy strikes. Through flashbacks, we learn that Man-duk and the tiger have met previously and, despite having killed each one another's loved ones, are more kindred spirits than sworn enemies. Both the hunter and his quarry abide by a moral code which has become passé at a time when cynicism reigns and the powerful (in this case, the Japanese occupiers) play locals against each other.

It's perhaps interesting to note how Jirisan is famous for a round of real-life internecine fighting in the 1950s, when U.S.-backed South Korean soldiers spent years trying to flush out communist partisans holed up on the mountain — a historical episode commemorated in classics such as Piagol and Nambugun. While it's difficult to gauge whether Park intends to offer an allegory beyond its 1920s setting, this parallel certainly adds to the historical and dramatic weight of a very serviceable if at times sappy action epic. With Lee Mo-gae's camerawork and Kim Chang-gu's editing evoking a wide range of visuals and emotions — from lyrical representations of wintry forests to sensational bloodbaths unleashed by the "mountain god" on men — The Tiger offers a powerful and poignant roar.

Distributor: KBS America
Production companies: Sanai Pictures in a Next World Entertainment presentation
Cast: Choi Min-sik, Jeong Man-sik, Kim Sang-ho, Sung Yoo-bin
Director: Park Hoon-jung
Screenwriter: Park Hoon-jung
Producers: Park Min-jung, Han Jae-duk
Executive producer: Kim Woo-taek
Director of photography: Lee Mo-gae
Production designer: Cho Hwa-sung
Costume designer: Cho Sang-kyung
Editor: Kim Chang-gu
Music: Cho Young-wuk
International Sales: Contents Panda

In Korean and Japanese

No rating, 139 minutes