Flying on the heels of grisly crime thriller Voice, comes Tunnel: a charming, comedic, yet compelling show that delivers solid writing as it details the pursuit of a serial killer with a 30 year track record. It’s another hit from paid network OCN, who seem to be on a role this year with their police procedurals. Tunnel is easily my favorite drama to air so far in 2017. Gripping, emotional, and occasionally lighthearted, Tunnel boasts and engaging and thoughtful narrative full of twists and turns.
[Be Forewarned: Spoilers Below].
Slow Build-up (subjectively speaking): The first three or four episodes of the show adopt a slower pace from the episodes that follow. This could be a bad or a good thing depending on who you are and how you look at it. I didn’t find this bothersome, because it was very clear to me that they were building up the relationships and necessary elements to help the story come together later on as the show progressed. It really payed off once we got to episodes seven and eight and the show really gets going. I used the phrase slow build up, but that doesn’t mean I found these episodes boring, they were simply a bit less suspenseful than later episodes, however, they were certainly full of emotion.
Frustrating Detective Work (especially toward the end): This was very evident in episode fifteen. After Jae Yi/Yeon Ho is captured by Mok Jin Woo, the detectives seem to be in a bind. They freeze up, and suddenly no one is doing anything productive, which is extremely frustrating to watch. What bothered me most was Kwang Ho. Yes, his daughter is at risk which is bound to have an effect on him emotionally, but I felt sapping him of all energy and motivation to step up and take initiative like he’d been doing for the past fourteen episodes was a bit baffling and overdramatic. Sure, he’d be worried sick, but it would have made a lot more sense to use that as a motivating factor to step up his game rather than sit around in the station with his crew moping and failing to make any more progress on the case.
It wasn’t just Kwang Ho either. The whole team seemed to be riding the struggle bus. It was as if losing Jae Yi meant the entire brains of the team was compromised, which was a bit ridiculous to me. I hated the scenes with the chess piece that Mok Jin Woo bugged and gave to Sun Jae. Up until that point, Sun Jae was portrayed as a very intelligent, observant, and logical character. I find it contradictory to his character to have him keep that piece in the first place, but what really rustled my jimmies was having him take such a long time to figure out something was even suspicious about it. Come on now.
A Bit of Repetition (in the final sequences): I didn’t like when Jae Yi used herself as bait in the earlier episode with Jung Ho Young and got choked, so naturally I didn’t like it when she got kidnapped and choked again in episode fifteen. You can imagine my annoyance then, when in episode sixteen, she is once again used as bait and once again nearly choked to death. I think the poor woman has fulfilled her choking quota for the rest of her life. Anyway, I found it a bit uncreative and uninspiring to have a Jae Yi choking situation happen three times within a five-episode-or-less span. I was just thankful that she didn’t die because I would have felt incredibly cheated.
Leaves Viewers With Some Questions: Ok everyone. This is it. This is the big issue most viewers took away from Tunnel:
“Wait, WHAT? What will happen in the future? Did he capture Mok Jin Woo in the past too? What is the logic behind the Tunnel? Why didn’t he just stay in the future? How did he catch the killer in the past? How will the future change now that he has altered so many things in the past?”
This is a list of perfectly valid questions that could continue on forever. However, we knew when we stepped into Tunnel that we were dealing with a sixteen episode police procedural with limited sci-fi elements. That being said, I think it’s pretty clear, or at least became pretty clear by the half-way mark, that Tunnel never planned nor intended to flesh out the ‘tunnel time’ logic. In fact, it wanted viewers to have ‘tunnel vision’. To enjoy what’s put in front of them, without thinking about or questioning the other details too deeply. The focus was never meant to be placed on the tunnel’s power, so much as it was on the crimes, stories, victims and relationships that were affected as a result of it. The time travel element was simply an accessory used to propel the plot forward.
Now, some people think the timelines should have been kept separate (eg. Kwang Ho shouldn’t have gone back to the past in episode 12 and been able to alter the future by bringing the pen there). I do think keeping Kwang Ho stuck in the future could have been a very (heartbreaking because poor Yeon Seok) plausible option, though they would have been plagued with figuring out his identity crisis. However, I think the goal was to give viewers an ultimately happy ending where, there was closure, and opportunity to hope for a mended future because of the newly constructed past (Sun Jae growing up with Yeon Ho, Kwang Ho raising the baby with Yeon Seok, the police station back together again rather than closed down, the killer assumedly apprehended).
Overall, I was definitely left with all of the same questions many people have brought to the forefront, but knowing this drama wasn’t aiming to explain the logic is the reason I’m willing to brush them aside.
Solid Cast: The cast of this drama was simply amazing. While I’d love to talk about everyone individually from Tae Hee and Min Ha, to Sun Jae’s dad and Dean Hong, I will limit my comments to the most prominent characters. Just know that I thought everyone in the cast performed extremely well.
The only cast member I had seen in a drama before was Jo Hee Bong. He’s been in many a sageuk and he is extremely versatile. I was so moved by his performance as the endearing Chief Sung Shik. He really had some great moments to showcase his emoting abilities. The scene where he and Kwang Ho found out Yeon Seok might have remarried was just so tragic. When he gave Kwang Ho the “pull yourself together, at least check to see if she’s living a happy life” speech I was brought to tears. You could really sense that he was hurting just as much as Kwang Ho, but knew the only thing he could do to help was encourage his friend to stay strong. Really awesome projection of emotion there.
I have, of course, heard of Choi Jin Hyuk and Yoon Hyun Min, but I’d never seen any of their works. I was pleasantly surprised by Jin Hyuk’s performance. I wasn’t really expecting anything going in, but he turned out to be very impressive and believable. I really felt like he nailed the whole gruff, 1980s, blunt cop role that he was given. The scenes where he cries for Yeon Seok were so agonizing to watch, because he was doing such an incredible job making us believe his devastation.
However, I was most stirred by Yoon Hyun Min‘s perfectly executed Sun Jae. When you’re given the type of role that has fewer lines and relies more on facial expression, the delivery of those expressions are crucial to the success of the character. Yoon Hyun Min has nailed the art of subtle but clear emotive ability through the eyes. Concern, pain, shock, disbelief, amusement: I could pick up on all of these different feelings just through his simple glances or twitch of the eye brow which was extraordinary. His best scenes were definitely the scenes related to his mother’s death and catching the culprit. The final episode, when he’s in the interrogation room with Mok Jin Woo, is perhaps his most poignant moment in the show. It was such a piteous situation, and you couldn’t help but feel just as dejected and disheartened as Sun Jae while he listened to the killer give the most preposterous reason for killing his mother. You couldn’t blame him either, when he lurched over the table, grabbed Jin Woo by the throat and lashed out in anger and disbelief.
I hadn’t ever heard of Lee Yoo Young before but I really enjoyed her performance as Jae Yi. Another role with very limited dialogue, which makes portraying it all the more difficult. I thought Yoo Young was also very expressive, and she too had a very powerful and piercing gaze, which worked to her advantage. What I liked about Yoo Young was her ability to adjust along the way as Jae Yi grew as a person. She was great at capturing the feeling of the awkward mini romance moments with Sun Jae, the mixed bag of emotions that came along with finding out her dad was Kwang Ho, the disbelief when Sun Jae tried to tell her that earlier on, the fear and trauma left over after being rescued from Jung Ho Hyung, etc. There were a variety of emotions she had to display while keeping the overall reserved and aloof traits of her character in tact. I think she managed to pull it off well.
Awesome OST: Perhaps the best thing about this show was the absence of vocal OSTs. I find them incredibly bothersome in crime procedurals because they really have no business being there. So, I was relieved to discover that Tunnel only used instrumental background music. And these intrumentals were perfectly in sync with the particular feel and emotion of the drama. Those of you who have been following me for a while know that I am extremely picky and ruthless when it comes to critiquing OSTs because I find them so vital to the success of a drama. The wrong music can completely destroy even the most perfectly acted moments. Thankfully the music in this drama was eloquent and elevating. They definitely knew what they were doing because everything lined up accordingly to whichever scenes were playing out and you could feel the pain, sadness, urgency, or desperation of the moment through the songs. OCN has a track record for not releasing instrumental OSTs but I’m telling you if they don’t release this music I will never recover, I really need it in my life.
Great Cinematography: Not only does Tunnel deliver a compelling story, it manages to do so with beautiful shots scenes. I loved how crisp and clear everything was, and there were some really breathtaking pan shots of landscapes, fields, the ocean, city lights, etc. I also loved the tint they added to distinguish the 1980s scenes from the present. It jived well with the vintage vibe but also ensured that we wouldn’t get confused between past and present actions.
Original & Strong Writing: I really felt the story was something fresh and, for the most part, well executed. I am aware that there have been time travel crime dramas before, none of which I have seen, but people have assured me Tunnel is different and maintains its own flavor to set it apart from the others. The narrative was something I hadn’t experienced before and I liked that there wasn’t a huge focus on the time travel logic because those types of things give me a headache. I also would have been annoyed if we had kept ping-ponging back and forth between past and present so, unlike some viewers, I’m actually thankful that majority of the drama takes place in one setting (2017). Moreover, my favorite thing about the drama was the focus on the victims and their families. Seeing the emotional side of crime was what made this drama stand out, in the same way that Voice did. There are plenty of crime dramas focusing on the chase and crime itself, but it’s so much more meaningful and gripping when there is special emphasis devoted to the crime’s impact on the people involved.
The Bromance: One of the most lighthearted but appreciated components of the show was the shared bromance between Kwang Ho and Sun Jae. They started out rocky, but I love how Kwang Ho ended up having a huge impact on Sun Jae over time. The two really began to rely on each other. I loved how Sun Jae talked Kwang Ho back to his senses when he was shattered from hearing his wife had passed away. Kwang Ho returns the favor later on when Sun Jae struggles with having to hear two different killers play mind games with him and spew out nonsense about killing his mother. Kwang Ho was definitely a brash man, but he was well intentioned with a good heart and Sun Jae comes to realize this over time. The scene were Kwang Ho tells Sung Jae in private that he is returning home was painfully beautiful. You could really feel the sadness of Sung Jae finding out his friend is leaving him. As he cries he basically reveals that he will be alone and unable to go on without Kwang Ho. You really get the feeling that Kwang Ho’s presence in his life provided a sort of healing.
The 2 Main Villains: I thought having two killers was a good way to keep the show interesting. I suspected Mok Jin Woo pretty early on, which made me thankful that Jung Ho Hyung was still in the picture. I actually found his background much more compelling than that of Mok Jin Woo, who simply killed women he deemed ‘dirty’ because it was dirty evil that killed his mother. I won’t lie, I found that explanation a bit lame and underwhelming. Sure, it was probably psychologically damaging for him as a young child to watch his mother work as a prostitute and later on die of alcoholism, but I’d take his mom over Jung Ho Hyung’s mom any day. Jung Ho Hyung’s mom was horrific and I’m not surprised Ho Hyung ended up the way he did thanks to her pitiful parenting. I also preferred Heo Sung Tae‘s acting over Kim Min Sang‘s. Don’t get me wrong, Kim Min Sang did a great job, but I think Heo Sung Tae was able to deliver a level of creepiness that managed to out shine the other. This very well could be due to the fact that Ho Hyung’s character left a lot more room for a theatrical performance, while Jin Woo was meant to be that everyday, “no one even noticed” killer who blends in with the rest of the seemingly normal crowd. Either way, I felt the show’s strength was keeping both killers incorporated into the story, even after identities were revealed. Had it simply been Mok Jin Woo, I would have gotten bored pretty easily.
We Love a Strong Female Lead: Some people felt that Jae Yi started strong and ended weak, but I beg to differ. Sure, she ended up needing saving a few times, but everyone needs saving now and then. The show clearly made her the brains behind a lot of the case cracking. Those detectives wouldn’t have gotten as far as they did in a lot of the cases without her strong analysis and quick wit. I like that she had a strong facade, but was still human on the inside. She wasn’t that try hard, wannabe tough female that drives me insane either. It was a genuine front that resulted as a consequence of her tragic upbringing. I liked that she and Sun Jae were mirrors of each other, and therefore could understand each other on a deeper level that others couldn’t. What I respected was her tenacity, and ability to show emotion in later episodes as she developed as a character thanks to her newly restored relationship with her father and subtle trusting in Sun Jae. My favorite moment was when she grilled Mok Jin Woo about his childhood and he went running out of the building he was holding her captive in, clearly shaken by her psychological prying into his past. I saw a few comments expressing dismay at her becoming a total “daddy’s girl.” Not sure what else you would expect from a woman who lived a fatherless childhood, lost her mother, had terrible adoptive parents, and lived a crushingly tragic and lonely life as result of it all. It’s only natural for her to want to bond with her father once she finally figures out who he is. Wouldn’t you?
Shout out to Yeon Seok: Give this girl a round. Yeon Seok was one of my favorite characters in this series. Despite losing her husband, she stays strong, and raises her child with love enough for the both of them. She remains confident and trusting of Kwang Ho and never falters. Even when he disappears the second time, she assures the viewer that she is willing to wait as long as it takes, and is rooting for him to capture the culprit. If that doesn’t scream strong and determined, I don’t know what else would. Every time her scenes came up and she cried I cried too. It was so sad, and I was literally fuming when they revealed she died in a car crash. I’m glad the ending changes things but it really crushed me when we still didn’t know that her fate could be changed. Major props to the actress Lee Shi A, who I thought gave one of the best performances in the series. It was impossible not to feel for her, when she longed to see her husband again. I thought she was extremely likable and endearing as well and I’m so relieved she gets to raise her child with Kwang Ho in the end.
Minimal but Satisfying Romance: I’m not big on romance, but I appreciated the subtle relationship between Jae Yi and Sun Jae. I liked that it was very muted and just enough for you to find them cute in their own awkward little way, but not feel that it was forced or inappropriate in regards to the setting and genre. It was beautiful how the two of them lived broken lives but were able to find a sense of strength and trust in each other. I also thought it was hilarious how Kwang Ho was their number one supporter until he figured out Jae Yi was his daughter.
Cathartic Ending: As mentioned earlier, the ending provides viewers with a series of scenes we were all hoping for. Hands down, my favorite part of the ending was the homage the detectives paid to the victims’ families when informing them that the killer had finally been caught. This drama was very much about the remembrance of victims and the emotional impact their deaths had on their families, who never found closure. They were subtle, but very emotional and touching scenes that were shot beautifully. I really teared up at the final visit, which was Sun Jae’s visit to his father and then later to his mother’s memorial with Kwang Ho. Recently OCN dramas seem to be very interested in capturing the emotional elements of crime. In both Voice and Tunnel, emphasis was placed on the victims. While Voice highlighted the saving victims and their stories, Tunnel reminds us never to forget the victims, their families and their stories.
And if those scenes aren’t emotional enough, another gut wrenching scene consisting of final goodbyes, follows. Though we are just as crushed as Yeon Ho, Sun Jae, and Sung Shik to see Kwang Ho depart, we are rewarded with some happy scenes in the end: Kwang Ho back in 1988, the reunification of Kwang Ho and Yeon Seok, Yeon Ho in the arms of her parents, a happy Sun Jae who often pays visits to Yeon Ho, Sung Shik back in his rightful maknae position, and 1988 Kwang Ho’s birth. It was very pleasing to see Yeon Seok, Kwang Ho, Sun Jae, and Yeon Ho all together. I loved that Sun Jae was there, and sporting the same suave hair style as his older self.
I thought this was one very well written show (especially considering it was the writer’s first project), with great directing, and a brilliant cast. I think the drama’s weakness came at the end. Like Voice, it began to peter out, with several, unforgivable police blunders taking away from the overall quality of the story. Not to mention a headache inducing surplus of Kwang Ho barking “bastard,” “jerk,” or “scumbag” over and over again until I had war flashbacks of Detective Moo Jin Hyuk. Despite the ending being a tad less coherent as it could’ve been, it was worthwhile and heartwarming nonetheless. Tunnel isn’t a perfect drama, but it’s a damn good one, and a fine contribution to the crime genre.
Did you watch Tunnel? What did you think of the drama? If you haven’t already, you can check out the two minute extended preview here.