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‘The Tunnel’: A Thrilling Break from Summer’s Limp Cinema

Amid the standard buffet of blammo and sausage parties, finally: a film to love.

Dorothy Woodend 26 Aug

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

It’s time for some love. I know I’ve been bitching and moaning about the state of commercial cinema lately. But really, there’s a lot to complain about. You know things are bad when theatres are reduced to trying William Castle-like gimmicks to draw in audiences. Castle was an American film director and producer who livened up his terrible movies with all manner of insane novelties. The most famous was The Tingler, in which electronic buzzers were installed in movie seats to give audience members a jolt in the bum. Director John Waters’ take on Castle’s career entitled “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” remains a masterpiece of fanboy froth. I would suggest you read it in its entirety, as well as the rest of his book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters.

The current equivalent of Castlesque gimmicks is Barco Escape, which sounds like it should be some ‘80s adventurer played by a young Michael Douglas. But alas, no... it’s a cinema contrivance consisting of two additional screens on either side of the theatre’s centre screen that come to life occasionally when the action demands. The effect, to be blunt, is decidedly stupid. I watched it in action in a screening of Star Trek Beyond (execrable all on its own), and thought I would take a jolt in the bum any day over this nonsense.

But back to love. All it takes to make love happen are a few tiny details – the curve of an eyelid, a drape of hair, the small vestigial cleft beneath a nose. So it is in films as well. A story deftly told, and a few shining details, exquisite, intimate and small, and over you go, ass over teakettle in love.

The Tunnel has clobbered the box office in Korea, and it’s easy to see why. Director Kim Seong-hun’s film has a way with smaller details, whether it’s the slowly declining bars on a cell phone or the conversation between two people facing death. Small things can engender big feelings. The Tunnel is a perfect example of a film that is epic and intimate all at the same time. There is a great deal to love, starting with the main protagonist, a car salesman named Lee Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo). Jung-soo is an everyman, ordinary in all respects. He loves his wife and kid. He’s good at his job. He’s even nice to elderly gas station attendants. One day on his way home, he takes a road through a newly constructed tunnel. Within the space of a few minutes, everything changes.

In an instant, his life moves from worrying about little details like making it home in time with the cream cake for his daughter’s birthday, to a brute struggle for survival.

In a bravura sequence, the tunnel collapses on top of Jung-soo, burying him underneath a ton of rock, concrete, and twisted metal. The only thing that keeps him from being turned into red mush is the fragile metal of his car, which is making frightening sounds as the weight of debris crushes down upon it. As the outside world comes to realize the scope of the disaster – essentially an entire hillside has slid down on top of Jung-soo – the inner world also collapses down to the necessities of life: food, water, shelter. Jung-soo has two bottles of water, a birthday cake, and a cell phone with 82 per cent battery life. Inside this tiny bubble of existence, the line between life and death becomes explicit.

As ominous groaning noises indicate that the ground is still volatile, Jung-soo has to navigate the confines of his car, make contact with the outside world, and figure out how to stay alive. It is here, inside this small place, where director Kim Seong-hun demonstrates his masterful understanding of how to create suspense, foster empathy and tell a story. It’s all in the details – a cell phone, the radio, and in the case of Jung-soo, an attention to order and cleanliness. You know when he finds a bottle of windshield cleaner and sets about cleaning the dust from the inside of his car that this man intends to live.

The story divides into a binary form – inside the collapsed tunnel and outside, as a rescue operation is mounted. An engineer named Dae-Kyung (Oh Dai-su) is charged with overseeing the operation. A no-nonsense kind of guy with zero tolerance for bullshit (this is a man unafraid to disrupt the nightly news), Dae-Kyung understands the scope of the job, essentially needing to find a human needle in a monstrous haystack of dirt and debris before time, as well as food and water, runs out. The film starts the clock and begins a countdown. As the days click by, the rescue operation is hampered on all sides by incompetence, bad luck and corruption. Hope, that most pernicious and persistent of emotions, flutters like a candle.

As Jung-soo’s long-suffering wife Se-hyun (Doona Bae) waits outside with the rescue team, the film posits a critique of the Korean government’s mishandling of disasters. (Photo-ops with the minister are much more important than actually saving a man’s life.) A sly evisceration of modern media is also inserted, as the journalists scrum, body checking each other for photos and access to the story. But the film also enters into unexpectedly profound emotional territory, when Jung-soo discovers that he’s not alone in the tunnel. A young woman named Mina is trapped in her car, along with her dog Tengie. She is pinned under the steering wheel, unable to move and desperate for water and food.

Herein, the film offers up a small set piece of morality. As Jung-soo shares his last bit of precious water with the dying girl, we are witness to an act of ethical decision making. Does he share food and water with another human, even if it jeopardizes his own chances of survival? Or does he sacrifice for the sake of compassion? It is a surprisingly complex scene inside of what is ostensibly an action film. As emotion moves across Jung-soo’s face in waves, you can almost see him weighing the moral costs in his mind. The small sequence is remarkable for the heft of emotion that it carries, but it is met by another scene in which Mina uses Jung-soo’s cell phone to call her mother. She apologizes for wrecking the car, then asks her mom to call her workplace and explain what happened. The humanness of this moment, in all its fragility and sadness, lingered. It made me think of all the last cell phone conversations between people about to die, who call their mothers, children and families to say goodbye. There is something about the tenderness and love with which these final messages are offered that is implicit in this scene.

As Jung-soo struggles to maintain his humanity underneath a pile of rubble, above ground the rescue mission leader Dae-Kyung must also do battle with the various forces that would ascribe human life less importance than a budgetary line or a media sound bite. As the journalists place bets on how long Jung-soo will last, and government officials stage meetings, the clock continues to tick. In such a Kafkaesque situation a sense of humour is also a necessity for survival, as the two men discover when Dae-Kyung advises the trapped man to drink his own urine, when his water supply runs out.

“Have you ever done it?” Jung-soo asks. The answer, of course, is no. In a fit of conscience, Dae-Kyung decides to rectify that situation, and offers up his experience of drinking his own pee. “I would advise you to let it cool first.” It’s emblematic of the film’s particular approach to the story: death is right there, looking at its watch and making impatient noises, while the humans stand around making stupid jokes and doing their best to help each other in an impossible situation.

The film is not without its faults. There is a strain of sentiment that flavours the action, and at a certain point credulity is also stretched to the breaking point. (How long does his cell phone battery last?) But there’s also a big payoff and a penultimate scene that is hilarious and obscene and completely justified. There is a great deal to love here.

I thought about this in contrast to the bombastic and frankly barely competent direction in a film like Star Trek Beyond, and the ridiculous thing that is Barco Escape. What a monumental waste of money, effort, and everyone’s time. We don’t need gimmicks or cheap tricks or more explosions; there is joy and love aplenty in skill of execution, a story well told, a tiny fragile moment between two humans as they hold hands and face the darkness together.  [Tyee]

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