The year is 1925 and the place is Korea, occupied by the Japanese forces and being riven apart by shifting allegiances imposed on them by their conquerors. But up in the mountains, there is a problem, as hunting has almost wiped out the population of tigers there, and the Japanese officials only encourage this so they can have trophies of tiger heads to hang on their wall and skins to use as rugs. The fact is, there is only one tiger left now, a huge, one-eyed, four hundred kilogramme beast named Mountain Lord, and it is not going quietly as it carries out raids on the hunting parties sent to track it down, committing a growing amount of slaughter the Japanese are keen to put a stop to...
The Tiger was drawn from a true story, though one that happened in Russia rather than Korea, and marked a change in direction for writer and director Park Hoon-jung who up till now had been largely making crime thrillers, with only his directorial debut The Showdown a hint that he had this story in him, though it was more a man against nature yarn than anything else. Or rather, a nature against man account as the tiger of the title is pitted against the worst impulses of humanity, perhaps knowing that as the last of his kind he is making a last stand against extinction. In years past, the Mountain Lord would have been depicted by an actual big cat, trained to react appropriately.
However, this was the 21st Century and things were different now: filmmakers need not risk life and limb with real animals as with the infamous Roar of the eighties, as CGI would take up a lot of the slack, not to mention being more versatile as it was far easier to tell thousands of pixels what to do than train a tiger to be at your command. The trouble with that was the results could often be fake-looking if they were not up to snuff, or even if the animated animal did not behave realistically - anyone who had seen a nature documentary or two would have enough to judge that by. But Park's team of animators were well-trained themselves, doing an abundance of research to get their tiger acting convincingly.
Indeed, while it was clear enough this was a computer-generated creature we were watching, thanks to intense sequences where it massacred whole bunches of the hunters sent after it, it was difficult to fault the concept and realisation of Mountain Lord, which made for a far worthier adversary than many a movie which revolved around a CGI villain. That could be down to the titular tiger not being that villainous, it was more a noble beast raging against its would-be killers, and included two individuals potentially conclusive to its existence should they meet. One of those was hunter Gu-Kyung (Jeong Man-sik), one of those stocky, muscular character actors that Korea brought up, and the other was his more reasonable equivalent, South Korean superstar Choi Min-sik who was probably the most recognisable performer from that region for the Westerners.
Choi played Chun Man-duk, whose life is pieced together for us as the action unfolds thanks to flashbacks sprinkled amidst the present day (for 1925) scenes. We know he has lost his wife some time before, and that he has a teenage son, Seok (Sung Yoo-Bin), who he wishes to follow in his footsteps, no matter that life is moving on and the need for hunters is less than the need for shopkeepers in their region. Gu-Kyung contrives to draw Man-duk into the Japanese orders to destroy the tiger, knowing he is the man to end its life given what he is aware of, and what we eventually discover, about the relationship betwixt man and beast, though this took a while, and indeed the whole movie took about an hour to settle, risking incoherence in the early stages as it sorted itself out. Commenting on the effects of the Japanese occupation on Korea, which would mean more to the locals, was all very well, but this succeeded because it was a damn good adventure very handsomely presented. Music by Jo Yeong-wook.
[Eureka's Blu-ray looks and sounds excellent, and has a couple of trailers as extras.]