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 chagrinned, 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.In my 2009 review of the war drama Waltz With Bashir
, I referred to an observation by the late great George Carlin, wherein he analyzes the etymology of the phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome” and traces it back to WWI (when it was called “shell shock”). To which I appended:
A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it ‘shellshock’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘operational exhaustion’ or ‘PTSD’, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.
True that. And while Carlin was referring to America’s war veterans through the decades, PTSD knows no borders. Consider Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) a French Special Forces Afghan War vet. He is the central character in Disorder
, a new psychological thriller from director Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote with Jean-Stephane Bron, Robin Campillo, and Vincent Poymiro).
Insular, taciturn, and more than a little twitchy, Vincent can’t quite get a handle on things since getting back to the world. So much so, in fact, that he actually looks forward to being re-deployed for another tour of combat duty. Due to his condition, perhaps he can only find a sense of order in the chaos of war. His friend and fellow vet Denis (Paul Hami) is also his co-worker at a private security firm; Denis always keeps one concerned eye on him whenever they’re on an assignment.
Indeed, there does seem to be something a bit “off” about Vincent’s behavior one night when he and Denis are providing security for a large soiree taking place at the estate of a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Vincent seems more bent on surveilling the client’s
activities; his interest is particularly piqued by an apparent heated exchange between the businessman and a couple of his shadier-looking guests, sequestered in a private office well out of earshot from the festivities.
When Vincent is tasked to provide security for the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and young son while he is out of town on a business trip, Vincent’s inherent paranoia really comes to the fore (while wariness and diligence is something you look for in a bodyguard, any behavior bordering on delusional should raise a red flag). Another red flag: Vincent takes a sudden, uncharacteristic interest in the wife, but it’s hard to read whether his intentions are devious or protective in nature.
So is Vincent the possible threat to the safety and well-being of the clients’ wife and child? Or was he actually on to something the night of the party, with his suspicions that his client’s luxurious lifestyle hinges on potentially dangerous partnerships? Since we know going in that Vincent isn’t quite all there, due to his PTSD condition, the conundrum is all the more unnerving.
Unfortunately, after building up this considerable tension and intrigue (the first act hints at something brewing in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Someone To Watch Over Me
), the director doesn’t seem to quite know what to with it; the narrative fizzles, and the by the crucial third act (a tepid knockoff of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs
), the film hits the ground with a resounding thud.
Schoenaerts and Kruger are both fine actors (and easy on the eye), but they can only do much with the uninspired script they’re working with. The film does sport some nice atmospheric work by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and a unique (and appropriately unsettling) soundtrack by Mark Levy, but alas, it still can’t make up for a thriller that is curiously devoid of any…thrills.
More reviews at Den of Cinema --Dennis Hartley