Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tunnel: Surviving on Two Bottles of Water and a Birthday Cake

Politically connected J. Lloyd Haigh notoriously supplied rotten cables for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, but its design was so sound, it held up nonetheless. Unfortunately, that will not be the case for the shoddily constructed mountain underpass Lee Jung-soo is driving through. He is about to become the focus of a media feeding frenzy when his car in trapped beneath a cave-in. Current events clearly inform Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Lee, a rental-car wholesale dealer is headed home with his daughter’s birthday cake when the unthinkable happens. This is not a matter of a few tiles falling from the roof. It is a complete collapse. Of course, the authorities are caught flat-footed, but at least Dae-kyung, the on-the-ground operations guy is a strong improviser. He will do his best to rescue Lee, but he will have constant distractions from the swarming press and preening politicians. Naturally, the latter are all in for photo ops in the early days of the rescue (we hope), but they bail when it turns into a protracted campaign. Unfortunately, that puts Lee’s wife Se-hyun under tremendous pressure to give up on him.

Tunnel is not merely a claustrophobic survival story in the mold of Rodrigo Cortes’ Buried or the mudslide movie Detour. Kim opens the film up into a caustic indictment of the drive-by media and the negligent political establishment (the echoes of the Sewol Ferry sinking are hard to miss). Yet, it also happens to be a tightly executed ticking clock drama. We are keenly aware of the passage of time and Lee’s dwindling supplies of food and water, especially when he discovers Mi-na, a second survivor painfully pinned behind the wheel of her car.

As our lead, Ha Jung-woo is an effectively grounded, completely identifiable everyman. Like always, Oh Dal-su inspires instant confidence as Dae-kyung, like a Korean Tommy Lee Jones. Frankly, it is hard to say who is more emotionally affecting, Bae Doo-na as the maligned and harassed Se-hyun or Nam Ji-hyun as the slowly expiring Mi-na, but they both elevate Tunnel far beyond workaday disaster movies.

Ironically, there are some decent catastrophic special effects in Tunnel, but viewers are likely to lose sight of them, focusing on the human element instead. Still, as a follow-up to the rip-roaring corrupt cop thriller, A Hard Day, Lee proves he is a massive talent to be reckoned with in multiple genres. Tense, bracing, and sometimes infuriating (because it is so spot-on depicting the cravenness of the media and politicians), Tunnel is highly recommended for those who appreciate social commentary and the drama of extreme circumstances when it opens this Friday (8/26) in New York, at the AMC Empire.