Jeong-soo (played by Ha Jung-woo) is a normal husband and father who briefly gets waylaid by bad service at a gas station. Little does Jeong-soo realize that he is in a movie called "Tunnel", and that irony of ironies, bad service at the gas station probably ended up saving Jeong-soo's life in the form of an extra free bottle of water. Once trapped in the "Tunnel", all of a sudden every random object that happened to be in Jeong-soo's car takes on disproportionate importance.
"Tunnel" is the kind of basic, narrowly focused high concept thriller that's all too rare nowadays. I can see the pitch right now- "so this guy's stuck in a tunnel for two hours? Why would anyone want to watch that?", and then writer/director Kim Seong-hun replies "you just don't get it man, this guy is the human spirit! He's our fellow man! He's a reminder that sometimes in life all we can do is hope some person outside the "Tunnel" will come save us!"
Which in its own way is really kind of brilliant. In between "Tunnel" and "The Last Princess" I was massively surprised this week at how film can take a basically helpless protagonist and create a heroic impression simply by having them fight with whatever limited agency they have. Jeong-soo is a bit of a cipher, but that's very much a point in the man's favor as his tunnelvision (ho ho) is focused on a strong belief in the power of human compassion.
Even so, as a normal man, Jeong-soo has his limits, and that's where the more satirical elements of "Tunnel" come into play. The first person Jeong-soo speaks to about his diastrous misfortune reacts in a very oddly muted away. What's more, once the seriousness of Jeong-soo's crisis has attracted sufficient attention, it becomes clear that this attention is not necessarily a good thing. In a fairly transparent echo to Sewol, government officials are more interested in appearance than meaningful action.
The satiric bite is even harsher against the press. They create the film's goofiest visual with the drone fleet, and stop even pretending to care about Jeong-soo once they realize a better story can be made by discussing utilitarianism. At one point they even blame Jeong-soo for a random workplace accident that to me seemed more the fault of whoever manufactured the faulty tool. The press is also curiously blasé on the question of why the tunnel collapsed in the first place. Again, shades of Sewol.
Political questions really are secondary, though. Consider Dae-kyeong (played by Oh Dal-soo), a normal rescue worker who, like Jeong-soo, is appealing precisely due to his normalcy. Dae-kyeong is determined to save Jeong-soo, not because either of these men are extraordinary, but because they are both ordinary, and this is what ordinary men should strive for. This powerful thematic underpinning, taken in concert with utterly convincing visuals when necessary, works to make "Tunnel" a very strong film, where even brief bits of humorous comic relief come with a strong dose of humanity.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Tunnel""
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