Tunnel (Teo-neol)

Korea (2016) Dir. Kim Sung-Hoon

I’m sure I’m not the only one who, as a child, when driving through a tunnel would have feelings of apprehension of how safe it was and wonder if the ceiling would collapse on us before we made through to the other side. A few films exist that explore this possibility but now, it’s Korea’s turn.

Car dealer Lee Jung-Soo (Ha Jung-Woo) is on his way home for his daughter’s birthday with a cake and just needs to pick up a present. Taking the newly constructed Hado Tunnel, Jung-Soo makes it half way through when the roof of the tunnel begins to crack then collapses on top of him. He survives but the car is crushed and trapped by the rocks.

With just 82% on his phone battery and little signal, Jung-Soo manages to contact emergency services and his wife Se-hyun (Doona Bae) and is told to sit tight and he’ll be freed. When the operation commences task-force leader Kim Dae-kyung (Oh Dal-su) reveals that it might be a week before Jung-Soo can be rescued, and advises him on how to ration his meagre sustenance and limit his phone calls.

Yes, the central plot follows the conventions of the blockbuster disaster flick to the letter but don’t be fooled by this, Kim Sung-Hoon soon reveals that the plight of Jung-Soo is in fact a conduit for a sardonic commentary on the shameful exploitation by the media and the authorities. The wicked humour may often threaten to undermine the serious of the story, but works as a damning prick to the inflated egos in need of a reality check.

But before this, there is the small matter of Jung-Soo, husband, father and latest media darling, being stuck under a pile of rubble inside a crushed car. He manages to find some extra clothes and torches in the back of his car but mobility is initially limited until a second rock fall dislodges some of the debris to create some space. Jung-Soo learns of this when a dog, a pug (yay!) appears at the hole in his windscreen.

Following the pug, Jung-Soo is led to another trapped car with a severely injured Mi-Na (Nam Ji-hyun) is stuck behind the steering wheel. It’s been three days since the ceiling collapsed but Mi-Na’s predicament is far worse than Jung-Soo’s, unable to reach her phone to call for help and is without food. Yet this tragedy in waiting proves to strengthen Jung-Soo’s resolve rather than dampen his ebbing spirits.

But it is what happening on the surface that is the real story. The petty bureaucracy, public point scoring and insensitive baying of the media in search of the scoop isn’t limited Korea, and maybe Sung-Hoon was deliberately bordering on the parody to give his point some added piquancy, but this is shameless indictment all the same.

When the time spent on the operation turns into weeks and the cost is mounting, an official meeting is held where the money lost due to the delay in the construction of the rest of the tunnel is deemed “harmful to the economy” and they should presume Jung-Soo dead, questioning the commensurate value of searching for just one person.

The broad satirical swipes are largely aimed at the bold-faced vanity of the government. A high-ranking official (Kim Hae-Sook) arrives on the scene and expresses her concern and support to the cause, but only to look proactive to the public, followed by a photo opportunity to be had on her schedule.

Dae-Kyun, the only person who seems to give a damn, is constantly clashing with the reporters and their belief that their job is more important than his. In a change from the norm, where the chief is usually the on ready to give up and a subordinate is the compassionate hero of the hour, Dae-Kyun is leading from the front, keeping Jung-Soo’s spirits up and offering survival tips.

Because of this, and the fact that Jung-Soo is trapped underground for 35 days, the story tends to wander into the realm of the farfetched and requires some suspension of disbelief. The script piles on more misery for Jung-Soo but it is just another test of his diminishing patience, which is pale compared to his physical endurance, and indeed that of the pug.

Keeping the drama grounded is the emotional strain on his wife, who cheekily ends up working in the camp kitchen while the dig continues. She too has to suffer the barbs of others thoughtless conjecture and opinions of the uninformed, the glare of the TV camera and the heartless demands of the government in calling to end the project.

Se-hyun is a flimsy character in the grand scheme of things, the archetypal helpless wife whose tears either inspires or infuriates as the token of sympathy in Jung-Soo’s absence. One could argue that it is too small a role for an actress of Doona Bae’s talent and calibre, yet the rich emotional weight she brings, especially to a heartbreaking radio interview, justifies the casting.

Ha Jung-Woo proves engaging as Jung-Soo whether it is in isolation underground or in tandem with Oh Dal-su as Dae-Kyun, despite their interaction mostly conducted over the phone. It’s not quite a double act scenario but they create an idea of the mutual trust and empathy that emerges between them.

The premise of this as a disaster flick would suggest this to be laden with special effects but the collapse is shown only briefly and from the point of view of inside the car. The budget most likely went on the external sets than the effects. Images from inside the rubble-filled cars convincingly convey the claustrophobia of being trapped within a confined space, with the camera moving in close for added intimacy.

As a survival drama, Tunnel offers enough to satiate the popcorn crowd for two hours, whilst avoiding riling up the audience’s sensibilities with its acerbic intent, letting the trenchant mockery speak volumes on its own.

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