Two years ago, a ferry called the MV Sewol capsized off the southwestern tip of South Korea, leaving more than 300 people (most of them schoolchildren) dead and greatly damaging the South Korean people’s faith in their government, corporations, and media, all of which were culpable in the loss of life. The Korean film industry has long been fond of making disaster movies, but now we start to see the distrust from the Sewol incident reflected in those films in The Tunnel, which opens in Grapevine this week.
The story starts with a Kia salesman named Lee Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo) traveling from Seoul to Hado-ri to reunite with his family. As he’s driving through a long, newly constructed tunnel in the countryside, the roof caves in on him, trapping him underground in his car. He has a smartphone with 82 percent battery life, two bottles of water, and the birthday cake he was taking to his young daughter.
He’ll need those things to survive, because the rescue effort turns out to be a comedy of errors. The 911 operator asks Lee inane questions during his initial call for help. Emergency response manuals are years out of date. A government underling tears a map in half while unfurling it. The map turns out to be wrong anyway, which causes the rescuers to waste more than a week. The rescue workers’ own tent collapses on them. As the days stretch into weeks and Lee loses his ability to communicate when his phone dies, the politicians give up hope and the construction company that built the tunnel starts bitching about their bottom line. Only one official in charge of the rescue effort (played by the great character actor Oh Dal-su) determines to get the poor man out come what may.
It’s great to have the stinging social commentary outside the tunnel, because the drama inside is much less compelling. Lee’s attempts to save a young woman (Nam Ji-hyeon) who’s trapped in another car only yields the most maudlin soap opera. The same goes for Lee’s phone calls to his wife (Bae Doo-na), who’s basically there to shed tears over her poor trapped husband. The only surprise comes a few days into Lee’s ordeal, when he catches the surreal sight of an unhurt pug staring calmly at him from the rubble.
Subtlety clearly isn’t a forte for writer-director Kim Seong-hoon, whose last film was the cop thriller A Hard Day. Then again, Kim’s not after subtlety here. He’s making an angry polemic against the state of his nation. Road and subway tunnels collapse with some regularity in South Korea because construction companies and other big businesses cut corners, knowing that the politicians they’re in bed with will protect them if a disaster strikes. The Tunnel ends on an uncertain note, knowing the next catastrophe is coming and whoever’s caught up in it isn’t guaranteed that their government will look out for them. We can expect more such Korean films in the future.
Starring Ha Jung-woo, Bae Doo-na, and Oh Dal-su. Written and directed by Kim Seong-hoon. Not rated.[/box_info]