The South Korean film Tunnel starts off simply enough, but wastes no time throwing its protagonist into a brutal and prolonged struggle for survival. Car salesman Jung-soo (Jung-woo Ha), hurrying home to celebrate his young daughter’s birthday, is briefly detained while filling up his gas tank. The moment’s delay proves disastrous for Jung-soo, as a highway tunnel collapses upon him moments after he gets back on the road, trapping him inside his car.
And there he stays for the duration of Tunnel, a tense and entertaining film that distinguishes itself from the average blockbuster. While Jung-soo is trapped, writer-director Seong-hun Kim fleshes out a vivid story happening on the other side of the mountain of rubble. Rescue leader Dae-kyoung, played by Dal-su Oh with an appealing and naturalistic blend of professional capability and compassion, develops a caring rapport with Jung-soo in daily phone calls. Doona Bae, whom American audiences may recognize from her roles in the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, gives an aching but understated performance as Jung-soo’s terrified wife, Se-hyun.
Establishing these supporting characters on the outside lends Jung-soo’s predicament inside the tunnel even greater weight. Kim crafts an exceptionally tense environment inside Jung-soo’s half-crushed car. We cringe early on when it suddenly appears that Jung-soo’s phone may be crushed under a sudden rockfall, and again when we see the lines Jung-soo has marked on the two bottles of water he possesses to ration them out over the week he’s been told his rescue will take. (The cringes keep coming when the rescue inevitably takes much longer.) Alone and without dialogue for most of the film, Ha gives a tremendous performance. As Jung-soo’s trials drag on, he is a compelling, heartbreaking everyman.
Kim adds yet another layer to the narrative by surrounding the tunnel disaster with institutions in serious need of repair. The press makes repeated appearances in Tunnel, none of them flattering; reporters hassle emergency responders and eat up Jung-soo’s precious cell phone battery by engaging him in prolonged on-air conversations. (Their opportunism over a trapped man’s fate recalls Billy Wilder’s classic Ace in the Hole.) The government officials flocking around are no better, concerned primarily with phony displays of concern for Se-hyun and how soon they can dynamite the whole mess to start building a new tunnel.
There’s a beautiful simplicity to disaster movies, which deftly tap into our very real fears about the world around us while generally reaffirming the power of the human spirit to shine through crisis. But Kim craftily one-ups the natural disaster by mixing in human ugliness. Being buried alive is bad enough, but when almost no one on the other side gives a damn the predicament is even worse–and the escape sweeter.
Tunnel screens at the Michigan Theater on April 1 as part of the U-M Nam Center for Korean Studies “Korean Cinema NOW” series.