Director – Kazuyoshi Kumakiri – 2023 – Japan – LEAFF Cert.15 – 99m
A man falls down a manhole following his stag night and turns to social media to get help and, hopefully, escape – plays in the Official Selection at the 2023 London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) which runs from Wednesday, October 18th to Sunday, October 29th.
The opening minutes of #Manhole resemble any number of Japanese movies you can think of as Shunsuke Kawamura (Yuto Nakajima) attends a surprise party put on by work colleagues at his local watering hole. It’s a good night, suggesting he’s well loved (albeit on a fairly superficial level) and he leaves extremely drunk, briefly saying goodbye to best mate Etsuro Kase (Kento Nagayama from Love Life Koji Fukada, 2022; Villain, Lee Sang-il, 2010) whose well-intentioned present – a lighter – may not be so much use to Kawamura now that he’s given up smoking. Or so it would seem at that point in the proceedings.
Kawamura must have drunk a good deal more than he realised because as he staggers home, he falls down a manhole off of which someone, by accident or design, has left the cover. His upper leg is badly cut. Nevertheless, he’s determined to get back out, and a convenient metal ladder offers a way out. Sadly, there’s a large section of the ladder missing which would make it tough for an uninjured person to climb out; indeed, one of the ladder’s broken verticals gave his leg that nasty gash on the way down.
He’s getting a mobile signal, he checks his location – he’s in Shibuya – so calls everyone he can think of for help. He gets few answers since it’s late at night or early in the morning. Reasoning that people are more likely to help a girl than a man in trouble, he sets himself up on social network Pecker (presumably a word that has no dodgy overtones in Japan) as Manhole Girl and goes viral. Thus the stage is set for a satire of social media mores (although, frankly, this isn’t a patch on Mrs. Noisy, Chihiro Amano, 2019).
Eventually, he gets hold of former girlfriend Mai Kudo (Nao from My Broken Mariko, Yuki Tanada, 2022; Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me?, Takahiro Horie, 2021; Samurai Marathon, Bernard Rose, 2019) and has to talk her into coming to find him, no small task considering he dumped her a while back in favour of the boss’ daughter. When she gets to where his phone claims the manhole to be, she says she can’t find him. She seems genuinely concerned but taking what she says at face value, there isn’t much that she can do.
He starts to wonder, if he’s not in Shibuya, where is he? He becomes increasingly paranoid that perhaps someone engineered his fall. What could their motive be? He calls the police, with a degree of reticence, but they seem less than interested. Perhaps the officer on duty is tired. Perhaps they get a lot of prank calls along these lines.
It becomes increasingly apparent that his love life has been somewhat complicated over the years, with a string of broken hearts (including Mai) in its wake. And about twenty minutes before the end, there’s a surprise twist which set the tone for the final, confrontational reel. Without giving too much away, it relates to the body beside the protagonist which has been there a while since it’s in an advanced state of decomposition.
This film fits neatly into that genre of thrillers wherein the protagonist(s) is (are) trapped in a confined space – it’s probably closest to Buried (Rodrigo Cortés, 2010), 127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010) and The Pool (Ping Lumpraploeng, 2018) – although, with the closing minutes becoming an unexpected game of cat and mouse, there are echoes of Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce, 1989) too.
There’s a great skill to making films like this work, making the enclosed (or open) space believable and compelling, and it’s hard to fault the art direction of the manhole interior in which the hapless bridegroom-to-be finds himself for most of the running length. The broken ladder is cleverly designed and brilliantly exploited, while other highly effective gags include the discovery of the corpse, torrential rain coming in from the open manhole, a leaky gas pipe and a chemical spill that threaten to engulf the protagonist in rapidly spreading foam.
The use of the internet and social media is somehow less satisfying, although it does deliver one wonderful red herring about a social media influencer attempting a live, online rescue of Manhole Girl. But the film struggles to maintain its tension during its second half, and the surprise twist when it comes isn’t particularly convincing.
Still, even if there have been more effectively realised thrillers in a confined space over the years, it remains a spirited effort.
#Manhole plays in the Official Selection at the 2023 London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF) which runs from Wednesday, October 18th to Sunday, October 29th.