We’ve sort of seen it before: A guy is driving home for his daughter’s birthday, enters a tunnel, and gets trapped inside. Yet while Kim Seong-hun’s “Tunnel” sounds like it resembles any number of creepy tunnel pics or grand catastrophe epics, it’s actually a lean, enjoyable disaster story with enough distinctive elements to make it feel relatively fresh. Though unlikely to match the success of the director’s earlier “A Hard Day,” it shares with that film a biting critique of Korea’s government, wrapped in the kind of direct, personal drama that climaxes with lump-in-the-throat pay-offs for the emotionally susceptible. Home B.O. earnings after an Aug. 10 opening have been strong, with 1.8 million admissions the first weekend; a targeted stateside release Aug. 26 should see a small but enthusiastic response from Asian action fans.
Much of the film’s appeal is that it tosses aside the monumental and focuses instead on character, specifically car salesman Lee Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo, “The Handmaiden”), a genuinely nice family man stuck in a nightmare. He’s driving home through the new Hado Tunnel when cracks suddenly appear in the ceiling, and then the whole thing monumentally caves in — kudos to Kim Nam-sik’s well-handled visual effects. Miraculously he survives, but his severely damaged car only has a little space around it, trapped between literal mountains of rubble. His phone fortunately still has a signal (and 82% power), so he calls 911 and his wife Se-hyun (Doona Bae), and he’s told to sit tight.
With only two bottles of water and his daughter’s birthday cake for sustenance, it looks like Jung-soo’s time buried in the tunnel will be rough. Level-headed task-force leader Kim Dae-kyung (Oh Dal-su) keeps him calm via phone, advising him to ration out the water and save the phone battery by turning it off except for once a day. Things are uncomfortable, but Jung-soo keeps his spirits up, unaware of the media circus above ground, where stage-managed photo ops with a government minister (Kim Hae-sook) make it clear the politicos are most concerned with their image, along with continuing construction on a neighboring tunnel.
As Jung-soo waits below, complications in the rescue operation keep pushing back the number of days it will take before he can be reached. By the end, the bounds of believability are stretched beyond breaking point, yet sympathy for the guy is so strong, and Dae-kyung’s decency and insistence on continuing despite diminishing resources so disarming, that it’s possible to suspend disbelief and just go with it. Crucial to maintaining interest is Jung-soo’s sense of humor: If you had to be trapped in a tunnel with someone, this is the guy who’d keep your spirits up in a non-annoying way.
Director Kim effectively shifts between above and below ground, maintaining an unhurried suspense that suits the film’s intimacy. Not that there aren’t a few spectacular set pieces, especially when the tunnel collapses (twice), but “Tunnel” works well precisely because it keeps the focus on a regular guy trying to get through an impossible situation. Political digs add piquancy, and there’s a sharp critique of the public’s limited attention span, yet Kim inserts these elements without looking to galvanize viewers into rallying around social justice: he’s telling a good, focused story, with just enough depth to sustain the two-plus-hour running time.
Actors Ha and Oh make a good combo, the easy charm of the former nicely matched with the honest fortitude of the latter. The character of Se-hyun, the wife, is whisper-thin, though her underplayed, bewildered trauma fits the film’s overall tenor. The visual concept goes relatively easy on the claustrophobia element so it never feels oppressive; that’s partly due to Kim Chang-ju’s canny editing as much as DP Kim Tae-sung’s camera placement, which often allows Jung-soo just enough space and light for viewers to feel emotionally rather than physically close.