by Jason Suzuki
Out of the recent gems of South Korean cinema there is an argument to be made for 2014's A Hard Day being the absolute must-see. Sure Kino gave it the proper love and care with a limited theatrical run as well as a DVD/Blu-ray release, not to mention that it also played in the Director's Fortnight of that year's Cannes, yet it still seems to be in that undiscovered area of true gems. The Tunnel, Kim Seong-hun's followup to A Hard Day, carries with it the high expectations placed upon it by its superbly crafted and incredibly bonkers predecessor, and while it is not as deviously entertaining, The Tunnel is still a movie in which its craft acts to bring about your awareness you are watching something constructed, yet in a good way. And on top of that it has some tried and true social concerns done in an refreshing manner.
Much in line with Wilder's Ace in the Hole we have a trapped man and how the collective effort to save him becomes a circus on a press and government level big enough to drown out the human level. Going back and forth to the cramped setting of a car trapped in a collapsed tunnel and the world outside the tunnel where meetings are held and press trucks hold as much value, if not more, as the construction trucks, this is Buried if we got to spend time with the forces of bureaucracy that strive to keep our hero trapped.
The film opens on Lee Jung-soo (The Handmaiden's Ha Jung-woo) dealing with an elderly gas station attendant who has filled his car much more than he asked for. He remains calm but he lets some frustration show. Before speeding off after paying for the triple digit bill, the old man waddles to his car to offer him some water bottles as service recovery apology. Jung-soo tosses them in the back-seat as soon as he is handed them and drives off. We know that once he is trapped in the collapsed tunnel he will be thanking the old man for the gesture. Fortunately, for the avoidance of cliche, he still finds time to blame the old man for his predicament while he sips. The film strives for more introspection as a society rather than just one man's personal growth through extreme circumstances.
With a cell signal in the back seat of his car Jung-soo is able to call for help bringing in Dae-kyung (Oh Dal-su) head of the what will become the rescue effort for Jung-soo. Oh Dal-su is given a great role hear as he has to deal with the media circus the rescue becomes and fight for maintaining that a human life is worth more than construction of another tunnel and the reputation of politicians. When the the estimated days until rescue goes from a few days to two weeks Dae-kyung finds himself lying to Jung-soo, telling him a shorter time. This sort of manufactured truths for the benefit of the people will become a motif in the film.
An added narrative element which in turn acts to the film's social concerns in a surprising way is the addition of another car trapped in the tunnel with Jung-soo. At a certain point into his first week in the tunnel Jung-soo realizes there is a young woman (Nam Ji-hyun) also trapped nearby in her car. He squeezes through the rubble and metal to get to her, finding out she is not allowed that luxury as she is pinned by a rock in the front and stuck to her chair by the rebar piercing through the back of her driver's seat. This is where we see the manipulation on a smaller, more human level. Where Jung-soo must lie in order to not present the situation as dire as it is. By telling her a reduced number of estimated days the rescue mission will take, he has arguably performed as human an act as when he shares his water with her and her dog. This is comparable to Dae-kyung's lie, which kept Jung-soo calm but it also compares to the twisting of the truth the circumstances around the incident that takes place by the media and the government.
Bae Doo-na's partnership with the Wachowskis has yielded given her work that continues her truly international career but has amounted to little more than a semi-recognition with American audiences. 2009 and 2014 was the gap between Air Doll and A Girl at My Door, two works that asked her to turn in high quality performances, and those hoping for something really meaty for her here will be disappointed. Throughout the film she is sprinkled sparsely and it's not until the final third of the film where she seems to get one major moment after another, the most emotionally complex being the public fallout that occurs towards her husband and her hope that he is still alive when a construction worker dies in a workplace accident just outside the mouth of the tunnel.
And while the press and press conference scenes is the social heart of the film, it is the scenes within the tunnel that makeup the "necessary heart" of the film. It is here that the formal composition of the film and Ha's acting are on display. For films taking place largely in single, confined spaces it is expected that there be continuous visual play to keep the audience involved while still being able to properly convey the claustrophobia of its setting. Buried did it wonderfully using different coffin setups, one where they were able to pull the camera far back to show Ryan Reynold's tiny rectangle of light encompassed by the darkness around him. In The Tunnel the camera will peer through rocks but will largely stay with Ha, making each successive exploration all the more freeing even if he is still trapped. His attempt at just surviving until he is rescued is what propels you to keep watching as these sort of man vs. nature/time stories have always been alluring.
Kim's next film now has the allure of a sequel to his mind. His choice of subject and how he wants to apply his film making finesse will be the pull factors. From these two features, his first not ever having a US release, he shows the technical capabilities of craftsman director for hire but brings too much voice to be categorized in such a way. The Tunnel will not surprise you on a narrative level, but will do so on a formal level. It is an enjoyable watch and yet another example of the South Korean talent for films that combine both populist entertainment with strong social/political cores.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.