Tunnel (dir: Kim Sung-hoon, whose Hard Day put him on the map) has been topping the Korean box office since it was released less than four weeks ago, and amazingly now has a one-week release in the UK, until 8 September. What has contributed to its popularity in Korea? And could it attain the same level of popularity for overseas Korean film followers?
Part of the answer to the first question, and which will also be the attraction for foreigners, is the star cast: Ha Jung-woo as the man trapped in the tunnel, Bae Doo-na as his wife hoping for his rescue and the ubiquitous Oh Dal-su as the man leading the rescue effort. Ha Jung-woo in particular does well within the very literal physical constraints in which he finds himself. Bae Doo-na probably has the least to do – loving phone conversations with her husband alternating between dignified and distraught – and manages to make the role emotionally believable; while Oh Dal-su is the kind-hearted safe pair of hands keeping the movie and the rescue attempt ticking over. The movie has its attractions, keeping up the suspense reasonably well through the interminable rescue attempt – though there were times when this particular viewer was feeling that the pace could have been crisper (at 126 minutes it felt 5 minutes too long). There were maybe one too many crises that ramped up the tension: would the water be finished before the man was rescued? Would he have to drink the screen washer or – worse – his own urine? Would he make it back from his pot-holing expedition? Would the aftershocks of the landslide or the nearby explosions cause another rockfall that finally does for him?
The above reasons (and doubts) will probably mean that there is not enough to make this movie a favourite with the foreign audience, but for the domestic audience they are only part of the story. Because this movie presses a lot of topical buttons related to the Sewol, Korea’s safety culture and compliance with regulations. As we watch, we make comparisons with the ferry disaster: within hours of the tunnel collapse the relevant government minister (who bears a startling resemblance to President Park) is pledging an unlimited budget to the rescue effort, and the rescue team is the best in the business. No suspicion here of an incompetent response or of the relevant authority being absent at the crucial moment.
If, for a Korean audience, these aspects contrast with the response to the Sewol disaster, other aspects will seem familiar. The cause of the tunnel collapse is poor construction standards. Parallels are drawn with the Sampoong Department Store disaster, and the viewer is invited to despair again at Korean corporate greed – cutting corners and disregarding regulations in order to maximise profits. The viewer also despairs that the official blueprints of the tunnel bear little resemblance to the thing that was built – which means that the rescue efforts are literally misdirected. And despairs again at the lack of lessons learned: the rescue efforts are liable to be suspended in order that controlled explosions needed to build another nearby tunnel (being built to the same shoddy standards as the collapsed tunnel) can go ahead.
Probably the biggest villain of the piece, though, is the Korean media: getting in the way of the rescue effort, ringing the man in the tunnel (thus wasting his phone battery), and turning every step of the drama into a photo opportunity. There is an amusing moment when the rescue team sends a drone into the tunnel, and everyone has to duck so that the photographers get a good shot of the drone taking off; and then, from behind the swarm of press photographers, a swarm of press drones launch, pursuing the official drone down into the tunnel.
For the press, the disaster is an opportunity for headlines, drama and soundbites. Can they get the victim to speak live on air? If he survives for so many days, will that be longer than the Chilean miners survived or not? But the most telling criticism of all, and one which has been levelled against reporting of the Sewol disaster: the way the final news broadcast gave the version of events that was spoon-fed to the media by the government, not the version that we, the viewers, had witnessed.
And of course the government minister herself is not above reproach, wanting to make sure that the political downside of a rescue failure is limited, or alternatively wishing to capitalise on any success, and making decisions by reference to opinion polls. The cynicism of press and politician of course has relevance for most audiences, but will have particular resonance in post-Sewol Korea.
Kim Seong-hun (김성훈) Tunnel (터널, 2016)