Director: Kim Seong-Hun
Writer: So Jae-Won, Kim Seong-Hun
Cast: Ha Jung-Woo, Bae Doo-Na, Oh Dal-Su, Shin Jung-Keun, Nam Ji-Hyun, Cho Hyun-Chul, Kim Hae-Sook, Yoo Seung-Mok, Park Hyuk-Kwon, Park Jin-Woo
Running Time: 126 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Not to be confused with the 2014 South Korean horror movie, Tunnel 3D, director Kim Seong-hoon’s latest effort is a decidedly 2D disaster movie, which, in the grand tradition of many a disaster movie, puts its ill-fated location as the title. For many, the concept of Tunnel will most likely bring back memories of Sylvester Stallone bringing his macho heroics to the tunnel that provided the setting in the 1996 disaster movie Daylight. While that movie used the testosterone primed plot of a tunnel filled with flames and enough air to last a few hours, Seong-hoon dials things back to a more realistic setting. 20 years on since Daylight, Kia car salesman Ha Jeong-woo finds himself trapped behind the wheel of his car (a Kia of course), when a tunnel literally caves in on top of him.
It’s unusual for me to cover the plot for a movie I’m reviewing in the very first paragraph, but the plot for Tunnel can essentially be summarised with the above sentence. Just lose the Daylight reference. There’s no doubt that the sales pitch to make Tunnel must have been a tough one, not only is Jeong-woo’s predicament limited to the caved in tunnel, for a large part he’s not even able to budge from the interior of his car, as it’s completely surrounded by rocks and dirt. The fact that Seong-hoon is the man in the director’s chair likely put the producers mind at ease, as his 2013 sophomore feature, A Hard Day, proved to be one of the best thrillers to come out of Korea in a long time. Displaying a deft hand at incorporating a number of laugh out loud moments of black humour into the narrative, he’s an obvious choice to adapt So Jae-won’s novel of the same name.
The same goes for Ha Jeong-woo as the leading man. In 2015 Jeong-woo could do no wrong, starring in Choi Dong-hoon’s Assassination and Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden. Ironically Tunnel is not the first time he’s had to put on the equivalent of a one-man show, with 2013’s The Terror Live seeing his performance restricted to that of a TV studio. Jeong-woo brings a likeable presence to the role, and the same applies to the actress playing his wife, Bae Doo-na. After her powerhouse performance in 2014’s A Girl at my Door, the role of the wife in distress seems remarkably slight as a follow-up (not withstanding her 2015 collaborations with The Wachowskis in Jupiter Ascending and the Netflix series Sense8), and she doesn’t have much to do except act upset and hopeful in equal measures, but it’s still a welcome sight to see her back on the movie screen.
Seong-hoon has to be given credit for cutting straight to the chase (which considering the protagonists predicament, may not be the most appropriate word to use). Within the first 5 minutes it’s quickly established that Jeong-woo is (a) a car salesman, (b) it’s his daughter’s birthday and he’s bringing a cake home with him, and (c) the elderly gas station attendant fills his car with more fuel than he asks for, so gives him 2 free bottles of water to apologize. From the moment he drives out of the gas station in the opening scene, it’s only a matter of minutes later when the tunnel he’s driving through begins to collapse around him, in an impressively rendered CG sequence which again goes for realism more than spectacle.
It’s once Jeong-woo finds himself alone, buried under half a mountainside, that we start to see the elements of Seong-hoon’s style that made A Hard Day so successful. The same streak of black humour runs throughout the perilous scenario Jeong-woo finds himself in. From the first time he manages to make contact with emergency services, and the person taking the call fails to grasp exactly how much of the tunnel has ‘caved in’, to his encounters with a mischievous Pug that’s also trapped. Contact is eventually made with the head of the rescue operation that arrives onsite, played by Oh Dal-soo, continuing his mission to appear in every other Korean movie that gets made (in 2015 alone he had roles in 6 productions). While Dal-soo constantly gets cast as the bumbling everyman, somehow he still injects enough of whatever character he’s playing to ensure his performances never blend into one, and here he’s as effective as always.
It quickly becomes apparent that Tunnel has broader intentions than just providing a straight forward tale of a man stuck in a tunnel. Ever since the Sewol ferry capsized in 2014, which resulted in 304 deaths (many of them secondary school students), followed by the government and medias subsequent poor handling of the facts in the aftermath, there’s been an increasing undercurrent of mistrust towards those in authority. This has spread to the countries cinematic output, with productions like Inside Men and Train to Busan taking the opportunity to make scathing attacks on a government which has largely lost favour with the Korean public. This trend continues in Tunnel, however it’s handled in a less angry manner than in the examples mentioned, instead using comedy to take just as effective swipes at the media and government officials.
In one particular scene, Bae Doo-na arrives on the site of the collapse for the first time, and at one point is called to meet a government official. Frantic to hear some good news, the official tells her to look in a certain direction, revealing it to be a photo opportunity for the press to grab a snap of him and the wife of the man who’s trapped together. The other officials then awkwardly step into the shot so that they can each get a photo taken with her for the press. The awkwardness is only matched by how funny it is. In another the rescue team send a drone in to gain visibility on the extent of the cave in. After the drone is airborne, Dal-soo gives the order to the press that they can activate their drones, at which point about 20 others zoom up into the air, some crashing into each other and the entrance to the tunnel in their eagerness to get in first.
It’s a completely cynical look at the way both the media and the government use tragedies to further their own personal interests, but it’s done with a razor sharp wit, easily making such scenes some of the highlights of the movie. Of course Jeong-woo is never off-screen for long, and even without any other characters to immediately interact with, his performance is completely engaging as he comes to terms with his predicament, and exactly how long he’s going to be in it. Suddenly the 2 bottles of water and birthday cake take on a significant level of importance, and the juggling act of trying to keep a cell phone battery alive for an uncertain amount of time, all bring a fitting level of tension to proceedings. Seong-hoon also wrings plenty of subtle comedy from the confined space Jeong-woo is in, such as when he decides to open a bottle of washer fluid and starts cleaning the interior of his car, simply because there’s nothing better to do.
Of course, being the most commercial movie Seong-hoon has helmed to date, it raises the tricky question of exactly how Jeong-woo is going to get out of his seemingly impenetrable burial. Like many Korean movies, regardless of all that’s come before, the tone ultimately leads to a switch towards the melodramatic. This aspect is actually handled relatively well, the main issue is that Seong-hoon aims to cram in a number of scenes regarding the bureaucracy of the rescue attempt, all of which see Jeong-woo disappear off-screen for just enough time to notice. The fact that the scenes are thrown in towards the end also hinder the pacing. From an accidental death, to the public losing interest, to the corporations decision to restart construction on a 2nd tunnel being built. None of these abruptly introduced sub-plots really add to the story, with the new characters the scenes introduce us to barely registering.
Thankfully the plot reins itself back in for the final scenes, providing an expected happy ending that, while predictable, is still very much welcome. Tunnel is clearly Seong-hoon’s most commercial feature to date, and he handles it well, faring much better than higher budgeted Korean disaster movies like 2009’s Haeundae and 2012’s The Tower. While it doesn’t feature any spectacular scenes of mass destruction or feats of heroism, instead it gets by on its sharp wit and a trio of stellar performances from Ha Jeong-woo, Bae Doo-na, and Oh Dal-soo. Its premise may be basic, but thanks to some smart storytelling and an assured sense of direction, the light at the end of the Tunnel is definitely a bright one.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10