Director Lee Kwang-kuk is a regular of Busan Film Festival where all his films have premiered. His feature debut, the convoluted Escher-inspired love story “Romance Joe” (2011) won him the Citizen Reviewer’s Award in Busan, the Best New Director Award at the Buil Film Awards, and the Best Screenplay Award at the Busan Film Critics’ Awards. “A Tiger in Winter” (also scripted and produced by Lee) is no exception with its Busan opening and so far it has been well received in the festival circuit.
Gentle soul Gyeong-yu (Lee Jin-uk) has been living for a while at his girlfriend’s place, jumping from a job to another and nursing a comforting feeling of self-commiseration. One winter morning though, he wakes up to a storm in his teacup-kind-of-life. His girlfriend wants him out because her parents are visiting and – if being asked to disappear from his closest human’s life wasn’t enough – a dangerous tiger has escaped the zoo and is roaming free in the city. Suitcase in hand and pride on a side, Gyeong-yu is out in a dangerous world populated by uncompassionate friends, unfulfilling little jobs, ungrateful clients and an unpredictable tiger.
In this ocean of negativity, one night, Gyeong-yu who is working as a designated driver, stumbles by pure chance upon an unexpected buoy, his former girlfriend Yoo-jung (Ko Hyun-Joung). Drunk and in need of someone to drive her home, she is pleased to see him and slowly Gyeong-yu is sucked in an easy and unchallenging revamp of their rapport. However, that proves to be yet another uncanny decision and in fact, Yoo-jung’s unhealthy reliance on soju and Gyeong-yu’s un-convincing performance in bed only help his slow but steady descent into a black hole of discontent. Gyeong-yu is about to reach an overdrive status but this might lead to a personal epiphany.
My synopsis is purposely filled with “un-“ words, as our hero seems to be temporary living in the negative dimension of his own life and the reason for it is a very fleshy and fierce one. The tiger in a series of popular Korean idioms and proverbs is a metaphor for our personal fears and demons. In this case, Gyeong-yu’s fear of facing failure is paralysing him and keeping his life in a sort of nightmarish limbo and same for Yoo-jung, once an award-winner novelist (or was she?) and now dealing – barely – with a creative block and an evident sophomore anxiety.
It is interesting how this delicate character study slowly reverts the perception of the protagonists we gain at the beginning of the movie and gradually reveals a deeper truth. We learn that looser Gyeong-yu has actually written a novel in the past that is worth at least a bit of envy, while successful Yoo-jung probably wasn’t even such a good writer in the first place. But Yoo-jung is too drunk too often to realise that the tiger is following her closely, while Gyeong-yu will eventually choose to face it and reset his priorities.
Director Lee worked as an assistant director and assistant producer for Hong Sang-soo in “Hahaha” and “Without Knowing It All” and the influence is rather evident in the steady camera and soju-driven conversations, although his humour is subtler and dialogues are less frantically clever, while the lurking tiger provides a personal touch of surrealism. On the background, Lee has also highlighted few social issues related to the strictly-structured work landscape, the struggle for creatives and artists to conform and consequentially plagiarism as a form of anxiety.
Filmed in an alternation of glistening nights and luminous days with realism and discrete camera work, the film manages to stay away from depressive moods and conveys a sense of confidence in a natural order of things. Acting is first rate, Lee Jin-uk proves once for all that he is more than a pretty face and Ko Hyun-Joung is a very believable lump of repressed emotions.
Winter is cold but bright in this low-key, humorous tale of self-reappraisal and there is room for hope.