While some of its parts are good enough to interest us, South Korean film “The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale” is ultimately hampered by its incoherent and disjointed plot. At first, it seems to focus on its weary hero and one fearsome creature, but then it strays in the other direction as being occupied with gritty and bloody actions for most of its running time, and then it belatedly changes its direction during the contrived third act coupled with melodramatic moments I did not care much about.
It is 1925 in Korea during the Japanese occupation period, and high-ranking Japanese officer Maenojo (Ren Osugi) wants to collect one more precious trophy from Korea before returning to his country although his office is already full of many stuffed wildlife animals. There was an alarming report on a big, ferocious male tiger inhabiting in the Jirisan mountain region, and he orders his Korean subordinate Ryoo (Jeong Seok-won) to capture immediately this tiger which has been revered and feared by local people for years as the lord of the mountain.
After arriving in a rural village of the Jirisan mountain region, Ryoo attempts to get some cooperation from Man-deok (Choi Min-sik), but Man-deok does not give a damn about the hunt at all. He was once one of the prominent hunters around his area, but now he quits hunting for some reason while barely earning his living day by day. His wife died several years ago, and now he lives in a remote shack with his adolescent son Seok-i (Seong Yoo-bin), who is the only one he cares about in his shabby daily life.
Other hunters in the village are more willing to cooperate with Ryoo and hunt the tiger in question. Goo-gyeong (Jeong Man-sik) is determined to capture the tiger by any means necessary for a personal reason you can easily guess from his scarred face, and he and his colleagues including Chil-goo (Kim Sang-ho) try to corner their opponent together, but the tiger turns out to be a far more formidable foe than they expected. Although it has only one functioning eye, it can somehow zip and zap around its mountainous area as swiftly as the evil spirit of “The Evil Dead” (1981), and it is even capable of several pretty smart tactics to evade and distract the hunters. In short, this tiger is Rambo with furs, claws, and fangs.
As the conflict between the tiger and the hunters accompanied with Japanese soldiers is continued around the mountain, the movie gives us a number of intense action sequences decorated with lots of roars, screams, and bangs. Although it is more and more cornered by its opponents, the tiger keeps striking back at them through its wrathful attacks, and it mercilessly kills or maims lots of Japanese soldiers and Korean extras. It is interesting to note that nearly all of the characters attacked by the tiger on the screen are Japanese; does the movie try to make some nationalistic point through this?
The main weakness of the film lies in its reluctant hero who is supposed to be the center of the story but mostly hovers around the fringe of its main actions instead. Choi Min-sik is engaging as usual, but his character usually stands back from the circumstance as adamantly rejecting his former colleagues’ requests, and the conflict between Man-deok and his naïve son who wants to follow his father’s footsteps despite Man-deok’s objection is predictable and clichéd in its development. While appropriately cast in his boyish role, young actor Seong Yoo-bin looks convincing when Seok-i suddenly comes to confront a grave danger to swoop upon him and others at one point, and I wonder how the hell the movie managed to be rated 12 (it is the South Korean version of PG-13 rating, by the way) in spite of what his character goes through during the rest of the movie.
Of course, Man-deok steps forward in the end, but the movie is already exhausted without enough narrative momentum to get us involved in his situation. We also get a flashback sequence which reveals more about the complicated past between Man-deok and the tiger he has respected with some bitterness, but this comes too late, and the bleak, ponderous finale unfolded around one steep rocky peak feels superficial as followed by the sappy epilogue sequence.
Anyway, there are several solid elements in the film which deserve to be mentioned despite my overall disappointment. Jeong Man-sik, who has always been a welcoming presence to me since his supporting turn in “Breathless” (2009), gives a steely performance which could be a better dramatic center for the film, and Kim Sang-ho, another reliable South Korean actor, is also fine as a softhearted hunter who begins to have reservation about his old partner’s single-minded pursuit of their target. The cinematographer Lee Mo-gae did an effective job of establishing a harsh wintry atmosphere around the screen, and the tiger in the film is a fairly nice CGI creature to watch. I appreciated the visual touches involved with how it looks realistically dirty and grimy as a wildlife animal, and I did feel sorry for this fierce creature, though the movie often humanizes it a little too much.
After writing the screenplays for “I Saw the Devil” (2010) and “The Unjust” (2010), the director/writer Park Hoon-jeong wrote and directed “The Showdown” (2011) and “The New World” (2013), and “The Tiger: An Old Hunter’s Tale” is less satisfying in comparison. The movie is as dark and gritty as his previous films while sharing a few common elements with them, but it lacks the power to hold and touch me due to its uneven story and rote characterization. I understood what it intended to do, but it was not effective enough to engage me, and I felt colder than before when I walked out of the screening room after it was over.