Review by Sean Boelman
The Japanese thriller #Manhole debuted at the 2023 Berlin Film Festival before making a stop at this year’s Fantasia. The film is at its best when it sticks to the basics, taking advantage of its simple, chilling premise, but is held back by a third act that will throw viewers off with its somewhat outlandish ending.
In what might be the most literal premise one can think of, the movie follows a man who struggles to survive after falling into a manhole. Over the course of the runtime, the protagonist faces lots of obstacles that present threats other than mere starvation. Although the character does some less-than-savory things in a desperate attempt to find help, viewers will understand because of his situation.
Director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri shoots the film in a way that is undeniably tense. There are some really interesting sequences — including one in which the manhole slowly fills from the bottom — that will have viewers on the edge of their seats. Kumakiri does a great job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and anxiety through the cinematography and the soundtrack, which features some weird but effective choices.
For those who are wondering, as any reasonable viewer would, why there is a hashtag in the movie’s title, it’s not just in the hopes that the film will go trending on social media. The second act of the movie — its most interesting portion by far — offers an intriguing exploration (perhaps even an indictment) of the online culture that causes stories like this to be heavily sensationalized.
For the first hour or so of the film, it seems like #Manhole is just going to be the man trying to escape from the manhole, and this would have made for a pretty compelling movie in its own right. There have been plenty of one-note thrillers that have been effective, but this film fumbles its attempts to be something more.
Unfortunately, the film goes into much more out-there territory in the final third, changing it from a high-concept survival thriller into a much more convoluted mystery. It’s almost as if writer Michitaka Okada didn’t believe there was enough substance there to sustain a feature runtime. The level of suspension of disbelief that Okada asks of the audience is simply a bit too much.
#Manhole also struggles with its character development. It’s clear that the film wants to subvert the audience’s expectations, but as is the case with almost everything else in the movie, the characterization is taken to such an extreme that it will cause the viewer to become disillusioned with the story.
Admittedly, #Manhole goes off the rails so much in its final act that it almost ruins what was a very solid thriller that came before. Still, even if the script takes a massive swing and a miss, there’s no denying that the film is a tense, enjoyable thriller despite going too wacky for its own good.
#Manhole screened at the 2023 Fantasia Film Festival, which runs from July 20 to August 9.