I’ve been looking forward to seeing this one for a while. The reasons are simple – a Korean disaster movie and Bae Doo-na. Would this potentially magical combination create a satisfying concoction, or would I be ultimately disappointed. Let’s find out!
Car salesman Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) is driving home to meet his wife Se-hyun (Bae Doo-na) and young daughter for the latter’s brthday when disaster strikes. The underground tunnel he is driving through suddenly collapses, leaving him stranded with a partially charged mobile phone, a couple of bottles of water and his daughters birthday cake. The rescue operation kicks into life, headed up by Dae-kyoung (Oh Dal-su), who has to battle the nigh impossible logistics alongside an interfering media circus and frankly unhelpful politicians who are uncomfortable with the way the rescue is stopping progress on another tunnel, as well as the ever increasing costs. As the days count by, we are left wondering Jung-soo’s fate as the rescue becomes more and more unlikely.
South Korea is a country that seems to constantly be suffering tragedy on a national scale – from Child abuse scandals, to the collapse of man-made structures (bridges, department stores), to transport disasters (like the Seohae and Sewol Ferries). Quite often the root cause is a deriliction of duty and care on behalf of governments and corporations, organisations that the Korean public want to trust their own safety in. It is only natural therefore that this becomes a ripe subject for film-makers.
Director Kim Seong-hun takes a somewhat different approach to more recent disaster movies such as “The Tower” and “Haundae” by making “Tunnel” a film about one victim (mostly) and dispatching with a lot of set-up. Jung-soo is trapped withn 10 minutes of the film starting. He’s a normal, hardworking chap, with no mitigating back-story. We spend a lot of time with him, so it is important we like him – and this explains the casting of the ever-likeable Ha Jung-woo. Ha is a proper theatre actor, and is in his element acting against little more than the confines of his car and rubble.
Above ground the cast is somewhat more plentiful, with Oh Dal-su adding to his CV of genuinely good characters. In some ways he is the hero of the film, and get’s the audience’s support with good humour and being the voice that rails against the corrupt establishment. Of course Bae Doo-na puts in a winning performance, even though her character is actually paper thin in terms of written characterisation. When called upon however, she provides the real emotion of the film.
Although there are some excellent special effects, especially during a couple of the aborted rescue attempts, the film uses lighting and smart cinematography to portray the claustrophobic situation that Jung-soo suffers. And keeping with my theory that Koreans are obsessed with the scatological, the best tension involves a sequence around the feasability of drinking urine to survive.
In fact that sequence highlights the quite humourous tone that the film maintains throughout, which does at times work against the tension. I don’t necessarily want to be on the edge of my seat for two hours, but I never really had much doubt about the eventual outcome. There is a brief sequence with another survivor and her oh-so-cute Pug that is equally telegraphed, and the brevity undercuts any emotion the viewer might be expected to feel.
However, whilst this is an enjoyable summer movie, there is much more going on than the actual survival/rescue story. Director Kim is utterly scathing about society. The televisual media are portrayed as heartless and storychasing (though the Radio is given a much softer ride.. another common Korean move theme). The progress-orentated desires of the corporations and politicians are displayed in critical broad strokes – I am fairly sure the character of a local assemblywoman is meant to be a commentary of President Park Geun-hye. Some of this is going to be lost on the international audience, but I am sure it connected with the local ticket-buying pubic.
“Tunnel” is a good movie, with great performances, smart and focussed setup, and an effective political layer. It’s strength is in it’s characters and it’s tightness. But it does lack a little complexity, and it really is entirely predictable. I’m giving it a Highly Recommended, but in a year where genre Korean cinema has been as strong as I can remember, it might not be quite good enough to make my year end top 10.