Berlinale 2023: Japanese Thriller '#Manhole' Has Some Gnarly Twists
by Alex Billington
February 25, 2023
The stuck-in-one-place subgenre of horror is packed with clever concepts and places to be stuck in (from a coffin to a sailboat). #Manhole is the latest entry in this subgenre and it truly is one of these films where, no matter what it is anyone thinks is going on before watching, no one will ever guess what the actual twist is until it arrives. The film is the latest feature from Japanese genre director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (also of Hole in the Sky, Green Mind Metal Bats, Freesia: Bullet Over Tears, Magic, Blazing Famiglia, Sketches of Kaitan City, Summer's End, My Man, Mukoku) and it opened in Japan just a few weeks before premiering at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival. The title is officially #Manhole with the hash symbol, which makes sense once the film gets going and the social media subplot kicks in. This quick festival review will be spoiler free, as I'd rather everyone go watch this film without knowing anything more before heading in. It is not a spoiler to say that there are twists, because of course, that's obvious & expected for a horror movie like this.
A film called #Manhole about a guy who falls into a manhole and can't get out is bound to have some twists - and I'm sure the (eventual) trailer will likely have a few shots hinting at them anyway. Knowing that this has a twist or two isn't spoiling anything, it's just part of the concept, though I will do my best to not even hint at what the twists are because it's better to watch everything play out in the film. Most of what happens in #Manhole takes place down inside of this dark, grimy manhole. From a screenplay written by Michitaka Okada, #Manhole stars Yûto Nakajima as Shunsuke Kawamura, a young Japanese man who finds himself trapped at the bottom of an open manhole - he can still see the sky if he looks up. The movie opens with a quick montage of him celebrating and drinking with friends the night before, but as he heads home the next thing he knows he blacks out & wakes up in this place. I'm always down for these kind of thrillers, always hoping they're not too boring, and I'm relieved to say this one kept my attention and kept me on the edge of my seat. Mostly wondering: what the hell is going on with him, where is he exactly and why he can't get out?
One of the impressive aspects of this thriller is how gritty and realistic this manhole setting is. Many genre films opt for low budget decisions that eliminate accuracy & reality entirely, which can sometimes work, but not always. In #Manhole, director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri and his crew built a very disgusting set that seems realistic – which I say having never been trapped at the bottom of a Japanese manhole myself. But from the moment he wakes up, all the usual grim and grit is down there with him – dead animals, bugs, disgusting sewage, repugnant water, dust, dirt, and other objects you don't even want to think about. This is important part of the film's horror aesthetic – a realism that is necessary in imagery and in story to make it a seriously gripping and unsettling experience to watch as the audience. Of course, the script eventually goes through all the motions of freaking out then trying to get out when stuck. His phone still has a signal (and battery power) which allows him to connect to the outside world – but only a few friends seem to want to help, and the police try to find him but GPS the location he sends them is wrong, so he makes a social media account.
As expected, #Manhole is not just a movie about how to find and get this guy out of the hole. There's quite a bit more going on, including themes related to identity common in many Japanese films nowadays. Once it gets to the twists – holy shit. Let's talk about it more once everyone has a chance to watch. In the meantime, let this film play at genre festivals the rest of the year and become a cult hit. All anyone needs to hear is the "you will never figure it out!!" pitch and they're in. Sure, there's plenty to debate and discuss after. Did it all work? Does it all make sense? Does it even answer every question that it brings up…? Not exactly, but that's part of the gross charm. It relies on grimy realism but also takes a few giant leaps – though not all of them land safely on the other side. It feels a bit like a Twilight Zone episode, but that's not meant to give away anything, only to get you want to watch to find out where this contained thriller ends up. It's another must see stuck-in-one-place thriller horror because the discussions after are going to be so good. And if anyone does figure out what is going on before it gets to the reveal, they should probably be working as a detective.
Alex's Berlinale 2023 Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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