Director Lee Kwang-kuk's film features some strong performances, particularly an excellent Ko Hyun-jung.
Following his wonderfully droll indies Romance Joe and A Matter of Interpretation, both of which also debuted at Busan, director Lee Kwang-kuk is back with A Tiger in Winter.
Though it employs a similarly low-key but careful aesthetic and continues to explore some of the same themes, Lee's latest loses much of his earlier work's comedy. Yet it also gains a more focused and structured screenplay, if a little conventional by his standards, and features some strong performances, particularly an excellent Ko Hyun-jung as a drunken, has-been novelist.
Wannabe writer Gyeong-yu wakes up in his girlfriend's apartment one day to two pieces of news: a tiger has escaped from the zoo and is prowling the city, and his girlfriend wants him to leave her apartment. He wanders around with a suitcase trying to stay with a friend and making ends meet as a designated driver. One night he bumps into his ex-girlfriend Yu-jeong, who succeeded to become a writer when he didn't, but has now found herself at the bottom of a bottle as she struggles to come up with a long-in-the-works follow-up.
It's worth nothing the difference between the original and English titles, as in Korean the film is called 'A Winter Guest Who Is Scarier than a Tiger', which is derived from a series of local idioms that conflate the image of a tiger with our personal fears. For example, 'If you want to catch the tiger you have to go into the cave alone' is a way of saying we need to confront our fears head on. As an aside, the Korean version of 'speak of the devil', roughly translates as 'when I mention the tiger, it appears'.
Lee's film comes back time and again to the escaped tiger, which is a metaphor relating to the fears of the main characters and is brought up in conversation all regular intervals, just in time to keep the tension with the characters at a high pitch. Both Gyeong-yu and Yu-jeong feel enormous pressure from the societal structures they either find themselves in (in Yu-jeong's case) or just on the fringes of (for Gyeong-yu).
The terribly handsome Lee Jin-wook (Miss Granny) is rarely called upon for more than his looks but here he is given a proper role and proves to be up to the task, playing Gyeong-yu as a layered character who tries to put on a brave face but slowly cracks when faced by consecutive disappointments and cheating customers.
Last seen in Miss Conspirator, Ko is a revelation as Yu-jeong, playing her with a playful and wobbly physicality that shrouds a deep well of anxiety. As an assistant director for Hong Sangsoo, Lee collaborated with Ko several times in the past. Speaking of Hong connections, Lee teams up with his director of photography Kim Hyoung-gu, who is considered an expert on dialogue-heavy long takes. Several appear in the film, but they never feel drawn out, a testament to his skill, the strength of the dialogue and the lead performers.
Though not as easily enjoyable as Lee's first two films, the sober A Tiger in Winter offers pleasures of a different kind as we follow one character (for the most part) as he comes face to face with the various injustices that plague Korean society. From the rigidity of hierarchy to the lies and deceit by individuals simply seeking a leg up in an unfair system, to our fears and foibles, the tiger lurks everywhere.