Lee Kwang-Kuk’s romantic drama is a mellow reflection on success, failure and reconnection.
“A tiger escaped from the zoo. It was winter, and it had nowhere to go.”
Screened as part of the London Korean Film Festival’s final teaser screening, A Tiger in Winter might be an excellent encapsulation of this year’s major themes. Before the screening began, the programme was announced, with the comedy-drama Microhabitat – about a young woman in Seoul just trying to keep it together – as the headliner of the opening gala. The slice-of-life genre is very prominent this year, so it stands to reason that their final teaser screening was as down-to-earth and as highly likeable as this was.
Kyung-Yoo (Lee Jin-Wook) is a novelist who has recently quit writing. After being asked to move out of his girlfriend’s place for a couple of days as her parents are over, Kyung-Yoo learns this was nothing more than a ruse to get him out while she moves out of the building, and out of his life. Now living with his friend Boo-Jung (Seo Hyun-Woo), Kyung-Yoo takes a job as a designated driver; something of Uber for drunk people who want to keep their cars. It’s through this job that he sees Yoo-Jung (Go Hyun-Jung), another novelist, and a girl he once had a relationship with.
From there, the film dances around a potential rekindling of their relationship, and I have to give writer-director Lee Kwang-Kuk props for not often going down the path you would expect. Kyung-Yoo doesn’t immediately jump into a relationship with his ex, nor does he take the chance to move in as soon as it’s available to him. By purposefully avoiding the most typical narrative cliches, A Tiger in Winter instead offers up a movie that feels like it’s about real people. It might be a little cliché, the idea of the down-and-out writer or the alcoholic struggling towards their second novel, but the script never goes too far in that direction, and makes Yoo-Jung’s otherwise overdone character extremely interesting by the film’s end point.
In Lee Jin-Wook and Go Hyun-Jung, the director has found two extremely compelling leads who, despite the many flaws present in their characters, keep the audience’s affection for them strong throughout, even during their worst moments. Kyung-yoo can be something of a boring miser with little self-respect at times, but Lee Jin-Wook is definitely endearing enough that you find yourself still watching and rooting for him. The same goes for Go Hyung-Jung, whose charm makes plays her role with just enough charm to stay likeable, even as she drinks her umpteenth bottle of booze and does little but stare at nothing for another scene.
Lee’s direction and choice of both visual and narrative metaphors and running threads works really well. The choice of season perfectly encapsulates the movie’s themes of isolation and endings, and the ongoing theme of the tiger escaping his cage at the start of the film would have worked fine if it was just off-handedly mentioned here and there, but gets stronger once both Kyung-Yoo and Yoo-Jung acknowledge and try to use it as a metaphor in their own stories. Lee Kwang-Kuk plays with our expectations of romantic dramas and changes the game just enough that you’re not sure just how it’ll end, all the while delivering on impeccable visual storytelling.
The result is a film that’s a bit of a slow-burn, and could probably use a bit of a trim – but not much of one. You don’t want this to whiz past with fast cuts, and the steady, single-shot scenes aid in providing the film with the sense of realism it’s clearly trying very hard to achieve. Things are moving slowly for our main characters, both individually and as a potential couple so it’s natural that the audience is shown that process. We spend real time with the characters and what we come out of this film with is a sense of connection to them. Combined with a non-abrasive directorial style, and A Tiger in Winter comes out as a pleasant, surprisingly uplifting movie, and a great start to the festival.
Verdict: By never getting too predictable or sappy, Lee Kwang-Kuk makes a film that’s not terribly wrenching, but extremely enjoyable
Overall entertainment: 8/10
Sex: 0/10, come on Kyung-Yoo, get it up
Mandarins: Pile ’em up, eat ’em by the dozen
Tigers: One real (?), about four fakes
Boo-Jung: Is he eating in every scene he’s in?
A Tiger in Winter (2017)
Also known as: 호랑이보다 무서운 겨울손님 (Horangiboda Museoun Gyeoulsonnim) – literally “A Winter Guest Scarier Than a Tiger”
Director: Lee Kwang-Kuk
Writer: Lee Kwang-Kuk
Lee Jin-Wook – Kyung-Yoo
Go Hyun-Jung – Yoo-Jung
Seo Hyun-Woo – Boo-Jung
Ryu Hyun-Kyung – Hyun-Ji