It was either Nietzsche or Tex Avery — but one of our great philosophers — who asserted that there are two types of people in this world: those who walk through life blithely unbothered by manholes, and those who are destined to fall into them. Now, for curious members of the former class, comes an intimate examination of what it’s like to be one of the latter: “#Manhole,” Japanese director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s slick, increasingly deranged survival thriller about a man who will finally learn to know his true nature from a hole in the ground.
Popular, successful and possessed of highly covetable good looks, Shunsuke Kawamura (Yuto Nakajima, of Japanese boy band Hey! Say! JUMP) has the world at his feet. It’s the eve of his wedding to the pregnant daughter of his company’s CEO, and his co-workers have organized a surprise party to toast his good fortune. Walking home drunk from the festivities, Shunsuke suddenly stumbles. He comes to at the bottom of a deep concrete shaft with a nasty gash where his thigh interacted with the jagged edge of the broken access ladder. The moon is perfectly framed in the circular opening overhead.
In the manner of many a single-space survival thriller before, Shunsuke must use only those items at his disposal to engineer his escape: his clothing, a lighter and a stapler in his briefcase. Unlike many prior entries in the genre, however, those assets include a fully charged and connected smartphone, though a couple of odd glitches, like a deleted call history and his initial reluctance to simply call the police, suggest there might be something more sinister afoot. Most of his contacts do not pick up his distress call, but eventually he gets through to one, though as luck would have it, it’s disgruntled ex Mai (fellow J-popstar Nao) who is hard to convince of the gravity of his situation. The police, too, when he finally does call them, are less than helpful.
With his GPS on the fritz and no idea where he actually is, Shunsuke turns to social media to help him out of this jam, quickly ginning up a fake profile with a pretty female avatar, reasoning that “people want to help girls.” Gradually “#Manhole” earns its hashtag, as it becomes as much about the manipulation of a Twitter-like platform called Pecker and its incel-adjacent users, as it is about the offline threats of a leaking gas pipe, blood loss, rising rainwater and a sudden surge of poisonous foam — all rendered visceral by Yuta Tsukinaga’s fine, closed-space camerawork and Norifumi Ataka’s inventively lo-fi production design. Basically, Shunsuke is hoping to catfish his way out of this hole.
For the first two acts, the pleasure is in following Shunsuke’s resourceful, occasionally devious problem-solving. And Michitaka Okada’s screenplay avoids the most obvious survival-thriller tropes: Not once does the phone show a low-battery warning; never does the lighter run out of fuel. Even his more outré stunts — like setting the cell to record and tossing it up through the manhole opening to gain some clues as to his surroundings — have you inwardly screaming “Don’t do that! Why would you do that?” only to not end in the obvious disaster they seem set up for.
But no surprise can possibly prepare you for the swerve the movie takes in its final third, when this knock-off “Buried” becomes instead an ersatz “Oldboy.” There are clues dotted throughout that there might be a kind of karmic justice at work: Just because you’re the victim of a manhole doesn’t mean you’re not also an a—hole. But no matter how doggedly you follow the breadcrumb trail, it still leads to a twist so twisted the whole thing threatens to snap right off. Doubtless, it would be a stronger film if it stayed loosely plausible (and if it stayed in its lane/hole throughout), but this abrupt swan-dive off the cliff of credibility does achieve a kind of weightless, gore-inclined grace. And the po-faced seriousness of tone, abetted by Takuma Watanabe’s intrigue-laden, ticking-clock score and Nakajima’s mountingly frenzied performance, only makes the gonzo nonsense all the more fun.
There are obvious shades of “Phone Booth” and “The Guilty” here and like the latter, you can see “#Manhole” being snapped up by some enterprising American outfit for an unnecessary but attractively cheap English-language remake. It is nowhere near as deep as the eponymous concavity, nor indeed as many of its treacherous #plotholes, but “#Manhole” is an original enough blend of single-location thriller, online cautionary tale and WTF ridiculousness to make for an enjoyable plunge into the unknown/unknowable.The abyss, after all, can be relied on to gaze existentially back at all who glance its way. Who knows what malevolence it might have in store for the unlucky sinner who falls entirely into it?