THE TIGER (2016): An Epic Journey, Examination, Poem, And Tragedy All In One

I am reminded of a parable upon watching this film. I will lead with it. One finds himself trapped on the edge of a cliff between two hungry tigers. Doomed either way, the subject yet finds peace in spotting a lone strawberry. The advice of the story is to pick the strawberry and eat it, the message arriving at its apex; appreciate the inevitable finality of life, and triumph over apathy by devoting yourself fully to the moment.

It is what I got from it, anyway. And it informs, in part, my perspective on The Tiger. Indeed, a great many classic stories come to mind. The short story To Build A Fire by Jack London. Herman Melville's Moby Dick. And Michael Cimino's film Deer Hunter


Choi Min-sik, (star of Park Chan-Wook's Old Boy, a very interesting and prescient reference in this context) stars as the film’s central character, Chun Man-Duk. He is a hunter, and is on the trail of the “Mountain Lord”, the last and most feared/revered tiger in the land. His competition are vicious poachers who, while of course also hunters, default as the film’s villains for, well, their viciousness, and the juxtaposition of their ignoble pursuit to Chun’s less frowned upon one; you notice immediately a sense of honor in the man, and, after all, the tiger himself is a hunter. But it bears mention, of course, that no tiger is also a poacher, but rather a hunter by nature and thus not motivated by empty, monetary gain.

The Tiger (hereafter referred to by his honorary title, the Mountain Lord) and Chun meet at a pivotal moment early on, in a flashback, during the hard memory when they chance upon one another in the woods, and ChunChun mistakenly shoots his own beloved wife in a would-be duel between him and the Lord).

This at once crystallizes the narrative and, in retrospect, arrests it; this is a story of the best of man versus the best of beasts, revered hunter against the last tiger of Joseon. But their battle is reluctant, is a paradox, a tragedy and, yet, a morality struggle between two apex predators, alarmingly interchangeable in morose disposition, that find one another as each their spiritual totem.


Speaking of totems, I found my spirit animal in this tiger, and identified with his struggle. It was through him, his silence, ironically, that I discovered the irrevocability of Chun’s regret as he is haunted more and more by his past in the gravitation toward the Mountain Lord. This tiger’s hold on dignity is with taught fingers, so too is ChunChun's. It made me wonder what Moby Dick would have been like if the whale had its own soliloquy.

I rewatched the film with this idea in mind, of it being director Park Hoon-Jung’s answer to Melville's novel; in this way, a comparison of revenge stories, and again a juxtaposition. The Tiger’s central story is the rivalry between Choi's character Chun Man-Duk and the masterfully animated animal, the surrounding story about the Japanese occupation of Korea and that militaristic struggle, class and the nature of social hierarchies examined here in the way these same ideas are explored through the cultural tensions of the whaler Ahab’s crew. That bullet that struck Chun’s wife, it was meant for the Mountain Lord. And so she is to ChunChun what Ahab’s lost leg was to him: a symbol not only of powerlessness but the rejection of it; resilience, as it were. Determinism as a canvas for revenge. But both figures (the whale and Ahab/Chun and the Lord), they're each carrying a brush. 

There is a scene late in the film that corresponds with an early one; the mysterious Mountain Lord is revealed a father, sharing this paternal and patriarchal importance with Chun, and also like ChunChun he experiences great tragedy and loss. You can see in CGI creature's movements the weight on his mind, you recognize the pain in his eyes and the guilt too, ChunChun and the Lord in their evolution as mortal enemies become brothers in their mutual failure to protect their families. None of this is by accident, and it is captured beautifully. Nods here to cinematographer Lee Mo-Gae, a philosopher and poet.

There is an unproduced screenplay in existence called "The Man Who Came To Play" by Louis Garfinkle and Quinn K. Redeker. It is the story that became the film Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino. In that classic story, a trio of Russian-American steelworkers, veterans of Vietnam, go on one last hunt together before shipping out overseas. The story explores the psychology of these men, all disillusioned about the honor of war, something they risked their lives for only to find elusive, and their efforts to at least carve out some purpose to their existence, an existential truth to coax their nightmares, or at the honor that evaded them in their dry run to manhood.

ChunChun and Mountain Lord, too, are seeking purpose, and will risk their lives for it. They will sacrifice their everything to the altar of an unspoken ideal, and in this way they will transcend the mere distinctions as hunters to become folk heroes instead. Archetypes. Legend...

At 140 minutes the film goes over a standard runtime. It would be forgiven if not for several false endings, drawing one’s attention to the time. It doesn't derail the film, but it jars the magic a bit.

The ending however is why I love this movie. I mean, REALLY love this movie! When a film ends well, it retroactively either makes up for its flaws or emphasizes them. Where the die falls determined the final analysis. And Park Hoon-Jung's The Tiger, it emerges from the fray a winner.

There is an epilogue that the film does not need. It's beautiful. But the film does not need it. And yet, well, how can you fault it? You don't want to unsee the scene. You appreciate what it does for the story in reflection. And ahh, eureka! This is why so many false endings. They aren't false endings at all... they're unconventional intermissions.

The DVD copy of The Tiger I hold bears no special features, but the trailer is showcased. What I like about the trailer is the emphasis on the dichotomy. It lets you know you're in for an epic story without spoiling the narrative’s key moments, as too many trailers these days are guilty of doing, so in this we find another win for The Tiger in the body of a competent herald.

Written by Khalil Barnett


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