November 6, 2016
After the hugely successful "Train to Busan" a couple of months ago, now comes another Korean hit film being shown in local cinemas. I really welcome this development so we can also get to regularly watch good films from our Asian neighbors, not only from Hollywood.
Car salesman Lee Jung-soo was hurrying home for his daughter's birthday. On his route home, he had to drive through the newly inaugurated Hado Tunnel. While he was still inside. the whole tunnel suddenly just collapses on his car, burying him under a mountain of gravel, earth and other debris. He still gets to call the emergency 119 number to report his accident. He thought they would be able to get him out in a matter of hours. Little did he know that it was going to take a lot more time than that.
This film wasted no time in setting up the situation. The whole crash and emergency phone call all happened within the first 10 MINUTES! After that, we would have the next two hours to wait and see if Lee would survive this whole ordeal or not. That was not exactly a promising prospect but we held on just the same to see what happens to him.
We do have to suspend reality and accept the incredible superiority of Korean technology in this film. Can the roof of a typical sedan really withstand the weight of a tunnel that caved in on it? Can you really find enough signal to make a decent cellphone call from under all that rock? Can a cellphone battery at about 80% really last for more than 2 weeks before dying out? Can someone really still have energy to dig and crawl through rocks after weeks without any food nor water? Why exactly did he not try these things when he was much stronger? Don't get me started about that cute pug in there with him!
Ha Jung-woo had to carry the film by himself for most of the time, and the results are mixed. It is not exactly his fault though. He does his best with his claustrophobic role, and tried his best to keep us interested even as his ordeal became more and more incredible. He also got to display generosity and magnanimity despite his dire situation, and this made us admire his character more. I was surprised to learn that Ha was also the same actor who played the fraudulent Count in the controversial film "The Handmaiden" also this year. This was a very different look and role that showcases his acting versatility.
Koreans can really do their melodramas very well and it was evident here as well in the conversations of Lee with his wife Se Hyun. Bae Doona is a Korean actress I first saw in a couple of Bong Joon-ho films "Barking Dogs Never Bite" and "The Host". She also had international exposure already, in films like "Cloud Atlas" and "Jupiter Ascending." Her portrayal of Lee's wife was very poignant, with her pained sad face fully expressing her emotion. Every scene Se Hyun speaking with her husband was a tear-jerking moment.
The ruthless media and the credit-hungry politicians and their shameless, insensitive way of exploiting Lee's tragic situation received direct barbs from writer-director Kim Seong-hun (previously acclaimed for "A Hard Day" in 2013). An odd sense of humor was also present to diffuse the depressing air of morbidity, mostly from the characters of the rescuers. Veteran character actor Oh Dal-su ("Oldboy", "Miracle in Cell No. 7") played their most tenacious team leader Dae Kyung. This character was remarkable for his persistence, dedication and humility in service, and Oh portrayed these virtues well.
Watching this, I was prompted to put myself in the person of Lee. Could I have even lasted even a single week entrapped that way? On the other hand, if I was Dae Kyung, would I have persisted in the face of governmental pressure and everyone's hopelessness? However, I personally thought they stretched Lee's ordeal out too long to be entirely engaging all the way. The believability of the survival story (along with the patience of the audience) really got strained with every day that passed that Lee stayed trapped alive under the rubble. 6/10.