Tunnel (2016, Kim Seong-hun)

Tunnel is a small scale disaster movie. It’s also not. It’s about a small scale response to a big disaster. Writer and director Kim takes some time introduce threads about craven reporters, craven government officials, craven capitalists, but most of the movie is lead Ha Jung-woo stuck in a tunnel. The first ninety minutes of the movie move real, real fast. Ha’s stuck in his car in a collapsed vehicular tunnel; it’s 2016 so he’s got a cellphone with some reception and he’s got some water so it’s mostly an unpleasant camping experience for the first act.

Then Kim starts introducing more drama, more tension. There’s the initial terrifying experience–a tunnel collapsing as Ha drives through–but the film quickly finds a rhythm. The cellphone helps; it lets Ha talk to wife Bae Doo-na and rescue chief Oh Dal-su. Because Tunnel’s not an actor’s film. Ha’s role is good, but he doesn’t have any amazing “man stranded under 200 kilometers of mountain” scenes. Kim’s more interested in keeping Tunnel moving, keeping it surprising in its relatively limited narrative space. Kim has some texture scenes in the second act, but the action never goes too far from the tunnel.

Bae does eventually get some great scenes. She never gets to take over the movie though. Kim’s direction, with a handful of character moments, is all about the drama, all about the gimmick. Man trapped in tunnel. And he does an excellent job with it. There’s enough tension inherent in the narrative itself, going down a rabbit hole with Ha or Bae is just going to distract. Instead, there are those great character moments and there’s also a lot gentle symbolism. Kim’s got to engage the audience’s sympathy quickly but he doesn’t want to be cheap about it. Tunnel’s deliberate pace, which gets positively exhausting in the third act, is one of Kim’s best contributions to the narrative. His direction of his script is spot-on.

But all of his direction is spot-on. Tunnel’s not sensational enough to push the limits of disaster movie (it’s anti-sensational) and it’s not introspective enough to be a character study. It’s an effects-filled, restrained disaster thriller.

Great photography from Kim Tae-Sung, especially fantastic editing from Kim Chang-ju. Director Kim makes a conscious choice to abandon Ha in the tunnel occasionally, even when his narrative might apparently be more compelling then the subplots; the pacing of everything has to be just right. And Kim Chang-ju’s editing makes it happen. There’s not just audience expectation, there’s the characters’ expectations too. The tension is insoluble, but still reasonably gentle.

Oh has a great time as the rescue chief. He doesn’t exactly get to be comic relief, but he gets closer than anyone else. But he’s also got to be the audience’s objective viewpoint. He’s got to be reliable. For both audience and characters. It’s kind of serious, kind of not. Oh excels at it.

And Bae is phenomenal towards the end of the picture. She sort of takes the protagonist role–as much as Tunnel has one–from Ha.

Good support from Nam Ji-hyun.

Maybe Tunnel could’ve gone further, but Kim’s ambitions are confidently realized where it goes. It’s just a thriller after all. We can’t always be worried about tunnels coming down….

Can we?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Seong-hun; director of photography, Kim Tae-Sung; edited by Kim Kim Chang-ju; music by Mok Young-Jin; production designer, Lee Hwo-Kyoung; produced by Billy Acumen and Lee Taek-dong; released by Showbox.

Starring Ha Jung-woo (Lee Jung-soo), Bae Doo-na (Se-hyun), Oh Dal-su (Dae-kyung), and Nam Ji-hyun (Mi-na).


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