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by Jay Seaver

"Fine disaster & rescue, with a great Korean cast."
4 stars

A lot of things are graded on a sliding scale, but foreign films are often on one that slides both ways - there's a crowd that treats "mainstream" as a dirty word and one that asks why they should bother dealing with subtitles if it doesn't have something really special and unique. Both those groups may wind up unfairly dismissing "Tunnel" rather than enjoying it for the well-executed, occasionally clever rescue thriller that it is.

The man in need of rescue is Lee Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo), a family man headed home to his wife So-hyun (Bae Doo-na) and daughter Su-jin via the just-opened Hado Tunnel when the lights flicker, cracks start to appear, dirt starts to fall, and he can't accelerate fast enough to avoid the larger debris. Trapped and alone, he's able to call emergency services, though they don't comprehend the scale of the issue until they arrive. Now, Task Force Chief Kim Dae-kyung (Oh Dal-su) is charged with getting him out, but it will take days, if not weeks.

As disaster scenarios go, the one one presented here is kind of an interesting scale - big and impressive when they do an establishing shot, crushingly intimate when the focus is on Jung-soo and his struggles to survive underneath. That contrast will wind up driving a good deal of the plot later on, of course - digging through either the mountain above or the debris filling the tunnel is a lot of effort to recover what may eventually just be a corpse - but in the meantime, it could be a bit of a challenge for filmmaker Kim Seong-hoon to go back and forth between the two.potentially losing the overwhelming claustrophobia when jumping back to Dae-kyung and his perspective. At a certain point, Kim sacrifices this willingly, letting Jung-soo push away a some debris and get a little room to move around and a reason to talk even as his isolation increase, but Kim's thoughtful in doing so. A little progress on Jung-soo's part creates uncertainty about how far away help is in exchange for a little less purity in its apocalyptic dread.

This gives Ha Jung-woo a little more than one note to play, at least, which is for the best. One of South Korea's biggest stars (he was in last year's blockbuster Assassination and Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden), he gives Jung-soo an understated everyman charm. This is the sort of movie where getting annoyed at a nuisance early on could easily blow up into someone being an antihero in need of redemption, or a character can be saddled with overstated sainthood; instead, Ha finds an apt mix of gallows humor and barely restrained panic, although he's at his best in a few moments when he can see that doing a certain thing will hurt his chances to survive, and the horror at that thought flickers across his face. Bae Doo-na and Oh Dal-su both offer pleasant, passionate foils for him - you've seen these characters a lot, but Bae quietly finds a grace in her scenes, whether assisting the tunneling crew or apologizing to those sacrificing to save her husband, and Oh has a nifty way of having Dae-kyung get his dander up or trying to cheer Jung-woo up that gets a laugh but doesn't lose respect.

It makes for a somewhat mild-mannered movie at times, fairly friendly and only rarely verging on despair, which is no bad thing. There are times when one might hope for somewhat sharper media satire, as it makes early moves in the direction of Ace in the Hole but only really commits sporadically (though enough toward the end to get some snorting laughs). It's got a lot of great little moments, though, from a fleet of drone cameras following the one launched by the police to wipers seeming to wage a futile battle against a brick wedged into the windshield. The big scenes of destruction and suspense are nicely executed, and given a little more juice by a well-tuned soundtrack.

As a fan of Kim's last film ("A Hard Day") and the way Korean genre films often find a way to be a little more daring than their American equivalents, I won't deny that I wanted something more like that film's black comedy and twisted suspense from this. But that's the sliding scale, and without looking at it that way, this is a well-done disaster/rescue movie, not a bad choice for some late-summer adventure.

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originally posted: 08/28/16 06:05:10
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User Comments

10/26/16 Bob Dog Very Korean, very good. 4 stars
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Directed by
  Seong-hoon Kim

Written by
  Seong-hoon Kim

  Jung-woo Ha
  Doona Bae
  Dal-su Oh

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