There are some bitter laughs to have for its local audiences in South Korean disaster film “The Tunnel”. While you may think a number of moments of incompetence and ignorance in the movie are too absurd, I and other South Korean audiences know too well that such absurdities are a part of reality in our society, which has often failed to protect its individuals as recently reflected by the disastrous sinking of MV Sewol in 2014. Besides the notable social critique inside its story, the movie is a solid entertainment which knows well how to dig into its familiar grounds, and it sometimes finds unexpected sources of drama as well as satire while diligently maintaining its tension level along with mounting desperation and despair.
When we meet Jeong-soo (Ha Jeong-woo) during the opening sequence, the movie wastes no time in establishing a grim, urgent situation to swallow him. Not long after he drives into a recently constructed tunnel going through a mountain, the tunnel suddenly gets collapsed due to its faulty construction process, and he finds himself stuck inside the tunnel when he regains his consciousness a few hours after the collapse.
At first, the situation does not seem quite bad. He does not get injured seriously while being safe for now, and he is fortunately with a few things to sustain him for several days. Although his car was heavily damaged during the collapse, its engine still works, so he does not have to be in total darkness while listening to its radio from time to time. His smartphone is luckily charged enough at present, so he makes an emergency call for help, and then the news of his current danger is quickly reported around the nation as a rescue team is arriving at one of the tunnel entrances. Although he only has two water bottles and a birthday cake he bought for his young daughter, they may be enough for his survival if he rations them carefully until the rescue team finally reaches to his spot at least 10 days later.
Of course, several things go wrong as expected, and the movie is darkly comic at times as showing how incompetently the situation is handled by the characters on the outside. As trying to rescue Jeong-soo as soon as possible, Dae-kyeong (Oh Dal-soo) and his rescue team members come to realize how much they are unprepared for such an emergency like this. They do not have any proper manual or procedure from the beginning, and the collapsed tunnel turns out to be quite a troublesome obstacle in many aspects after they manage to make the first direct step for their rescue operation.
In case of the government people coming to the scene of disaster, they are more interested in how they look in front of a bunch of reporters hungry for the latest news from the rescue operation, and their attention is soon moved onto how long the construction process of a nearby tunnel should be delayed because of Jeong-soo. The minister, played by Kim Hae-sook with haughty stiffness, merely instructs other officials to take care of the situation for themselves while doing almost nothing, and the movie makes an apparent parallel between this ineffectual character and the current South Korean president, who has been criticized for her clumsy handling of numerous national issues and incidents including the sinking of MV Sewol.
After hearing the news about her husband, Jeong-soo’s wife hurriedly comes to the scene, but, not so surprisingly, there is nothing she can do except waiting for her husband to be rescued or assisting rescue team members. Bae Doona, who has been one of the best actresses working in South Korea, is stuck with a thankless role which does not require much from her talent, but she has a good scene when her character may have to give up her decreasing hope, and this generic melodramatic scene works thanks to Bae’s earnest emotional delivery.
While looking around this slow, frustrating rescue work process outside, the movie never loses the sight of Jeong-soo’s increasingly desperate situation, which remains to be its narrative center. His growing peril, which is a sort of cross between “Buried” (2010) and “127 Hours” (2010), feels more palpable to us whenever he hears something crumbling above him, and the director Kim Seong-hoon’s screenplay, which is based on the novel of the same name by So Jae-won, has several nice narrative turns to keep us involved in what is being at stake for Jeong-soo at every second.
Ha Jeong-woo, who incidentally was stuck alone in the middle of another emergent isolated circumstance in “The Terror Live” (2013), did a good job of carrying many scenes in the film alone with his engaging star presence. The movie unexpectedly digs out a few moments of lightweight humor from Jeong-soo’s predicament, and Ha ably handles these amusing moments without disrupting the overall dark, claustrophobic mood of danger and desperation, which is vividly conveyed to us thanks to the excellent work by the technical crew of the film. Ha is also convincing during the scenes where his character interacts with other characters on the phone, and Oh Dal-soo gives an amiable supporting performance as one of a few people who really cares about Jeong-soo’s rescue.
Although its third act feels a little too hurried compared to the rest of the plot, “The Tunnel” is more satisfying than I initially presumed, and it is another enjoyable genre piece to fill this summer season of South Korean movie theaters after “The Wailing” (2016), “The Handmaiden” (2016), “The Truth Beneath” (2016), and “Train to Busan” (2016). Considering how underachieving most of Hollywood summer blockbuster films have been in this year, this is surely a good thing for me and other South Korean audiences.