Yuto Nakajima is stuck for the duration of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s genre potboiler
Dir: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri. Japan. 2023. 99 mins
Forget elevators: you could pitch this engagingly lo-fi Japanese genre title in the time it takes to fall into an open manhole shaft and hit the bottom. Japanese boy band member turned actor Yuto Nakajima plays a man who does just that (minus the movie pitch) on the night before his wedding to the daughter of his boss. Luckily, he has good 4G reception and that elusive chimera – the cellphone battery that never dies.
Plays with the concept of rescue via social media
If #Manhole has turned up at the Berlinale rather than a less exalted genre festival, it’s probably because of the arch way in which director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s latest film – in a pinball career that has taken him from rom-coms to hard-bitten disaffected youth dramas – plays with the concept of rescue via social media. The message feed that takes up half of the screen for long stretches is the film’s best idea, tabling an ironic discourse about the TikTok-isation of emergency response that puts a whole new spin on the term ‘doomscrolling’. This ironic subtext is probably not enough to push #Manhole out of the niche outlets for low-budget East Asian genre fare that exist beyond its local markets but a streaming platform berth is not out of the question.
Although it may have a few perceptive things to say about social media, #Manhole is less effective as a suspense yarn in the man-in-a-tight-place style of Phone Booth. It requires us to suspend disbelief once too often, most lazily and brazenly towards the end when it becomes clear that Nakajima’s character Shunsuke has a history with manholes that he had somehow forgotten. He’s a good-looking young career guy who has climbed from humble origins to become the heir apparent of his future father-in-law’s real estate business. But as in that early Colin Farrell film, he turns out – soon enough for it not to be a spoiler – to be a bit of a cad romantically.
Tellingly, his first instinct when creating a social media account on ‘Pecker’ – a platform that here feels like a cross between Twitter and TikTok – is to misuse a woman, calling himself ‘Manhole Girl’ and finding a cute photo online to support the lie. As Shunsuke tells a former girlfriend who has reluctantly agreed to come to his rescue, “people want to help girls”.
#Manhole needs only the flimsiest of excuses – a broken ladder! – to keep the wounded Shunsuke stuck in a cramped space inhabited by things that slither and crawl. And it needs only the most analogue of special effects – foam, no less! – to pump up the jeopardy. Gradually some horror notes creep in, right around when the film embraces its true nature as a shoot-em-quick B-movie with little interest in nuance. However, for Asian genre fans faced with a quiet Friday night, Kumakiri’s latest does just enough to entertain – and comes with an ending that neatly ties up its underyling message about being careful what you wish for when you appeal for help via social media.
Except for a few minutes at the beginning and end, Shunsuke is the only character we see outside of a screen or a flashback. The director has declared he cast Nagayama because he was a blank canvas “that could be dyed to any colour”. That’s pretty accurate: the fresh-faced actor does a good enough job without acting so much he upsets the genre apple cart. Yuta Tsukinaga’s cinematography plays up the horror elements of the dank pit Shunsuke has fallen into, lighting his face in monochrome blues or greens. One distracting element is the tinny music that plays from some unidentified source – snatches of which sound like recycled old movie soundtracks that are more puzzling than atmospheric.
Production company: Twins Japan
International sales: Gaga Corporation, email@example.com
Producers: Tsuyoshi Matsushita, Hideki Hoshino
Screenplay: Michitaka Okada
Production design: Norifumi Ataka
Editing: Daisuke Imai
Cinematography: Yuta Tsukinaga
Music: Takuma Watanabe
Main cast: Yuto Nakajima, Nao, Kento Nagayama