By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)
Herbie Cook: The old man sure looked bad. Did you see his face?
Charles Tatum [thoughtfully]: Yeah.
Herbie Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.
Charles Tatum: One man’s better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?
Herbie Cook: Teach me what?
Charles Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You read about 84 men, or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.
-from Ace in the Hole (1951), screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman.
There’s a lot of that “human interest” in Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel, a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks that are typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ.
Said to be “based on true events” (which puzzlingly stumps Mr. Google) the story centers on harried Everyman Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo). Commuting home from his car salesman gig one fine sunny day, Jung-soo pulls into a service station. He asks for $30 worth of gas, but the elderly, hearing-impaired attendant gives him a nearly $100 fill-up instead. Jung-soo is a bit chagrined, but pays his bill and starts to pull away. The attendant runs after him and, by way of apology, insists that he accept two bottles of water. Jung-soo rolls his eyes, but acknowledges the gesture, tossing the bottles on the seat next to the boxed birthday cake he’s bringing home to his daughter.
And yes, it is the director’s intent that we make a special note of the bottled water, and the cake. As I am sure he wishes us to note the irony of the signage over the tunnel Jung-soo is headed for:
Hado Tunnel: Happy and Safe National Construction
As you may surmise (considering you know the premise of the film), Jung-soo’s passage through the Hado Tunnel on this particular fine sunny day will prove to be neither “happy”…nor “safe”.
To be honest, once the inevitable occurred (a harrowing sequence), I began to have doubts whether I could commit to the remaining 2 hours of the film; because I’m claustrophobic, and any story that involves physical entrapment freaks me out (as much as I admire Danny Boyle, I’ve yet to screw up the courage to sit through his 2010 thriller 127 Hours). And since that fear also precipitates white-knuckled parking in garages with low ceilings, driving across lower decks of double-decker bridges, and (wait for it) driving through tunnels…I was all set to just call it a day.
But thanks to Seong-hun’s substantive writing and direction and Jung-woo’s seriocomic performance (recalling Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian), I was absorbed enough by the story to allay my visceral concerns. And, akin to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.