This is a review from the world premiere of The Tiger Mask at the 17th Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival in Korea, July 20th.
Hollywood gets a lot of slack, but at least they’re usually slick with their superhero properties. Asia meanwhile can do sci-fi, it can nail horror, but it’s still lagging behind with the relatively fledgling superhero genre. Countries like Thailand and Korea are united in appreciation of manga heroes from Japan, but there’s still apprehension when it comes to tackling their like on the big screen, surprising news considering these nations’ passion for comic book characters, whether Japanese or homegrown.
It can’t be a case of budget. South Korea is guaranteed to churn out flagpole disaster pictures on a yearly basis, yet the live action debut of its best known hero Robot Taekwon V remains DOA in development hell. From Thailand, only the terrible Red Eagle from 2010 comes to mind. In the otaku land of Japan itself, the most recent hero series would have to be last decade’s Zebraman, as helmed by Takashi Miike. Miike is obviously regarded as a reliable pair of hands in his home country, having been handed the keys to the Ace Attorney franchise last year. Both series though are not exactly straight up superhero fare, with Zebraman being rather tongue-in-cheek, and Phoenix Wright more sci-fi brain than super-powered brawn. All eyes therefore are on The Tiger Mask, as based on the classic monster wrestling manga of the same name, along with its director, newcomer Ken Ochiai.
Watching Tiger Mask, I was reminded of the aforementioned Red Eagle. Both films unfortunately share the same plodding pace, limp fight scenes, and poor acting. But at least the ultra-violent Red Eagle knew its audience. Tiger Mask’s target though is all over the shop, focusing on heart-warming orphanages and Power Ranger fight scenes shot with the vigour of teatime kids’ programming, whilst yet embracing the fashionable grit of post-Nolan cinema. Kids are lured into wrestling slavery, then die with little notice from anyone, for example. We see a crippled good guy get executed via critter for he’s deemed to be nothing but a ‘fallen race horse.’ There’s also sexy girls in leather, prowling around a lair of pre-pubescent boys for some reason or another (though that’s more wrong than dark).
The whole tone of the film is one big mess, but not as messy as the screenplay. If you’re not familiar with the original source material, then be prepared to ask a lot of questions. Why do the wrestling trainees age over a decade, while Sexy Leather Girl and Shô Aikawa’s child snatcher don’t? That’s one headscratcher. You’ll also wonder how the film’s bland vision of contemporary Tokyo manages to safely incorporate wrestling matches between men and monstrosities. Where do these enemies in the ring come from anyway, and why don’t they give up the WWF life to go over ground and let loose a little on the humans above? This film could have had a whole underground army of monsters attacking Tokyo, or even just our hero himself, Tiger Mask, the grown up orphan boy. That’s what usually happens in comic book third acts, mayhem on an epic scale, but this film seems very content to end with a tiddly three minute fight scene (the conclusion of which is immediately undermined anyway in predictable fashion).
The only good part of the film is the Marvel-esque end credit intro, with beautifully rendered tigers that are far better than any of the CGI seen in the film. With special effects, the film occupies another weird middle ground, its costume designs either being of Hellboy/Iron Man quality, or a tacky plasticity that only works when used ironically, and not in a stupidly over earnest film such as this one. Unlike some European film industries, Japanese genre cinema has the budget to avoid such shortcuts. Judging by The Tiger Mask though, it’s going to have to keep relying solely on Takashi Miike’s shoulders for just that little bit longer.
This review was provided by guest blogger Giacomo Lee, a writer + quasi-teacher now living in Seoul!