Manhole (Maen-hol)

Korea (2014) Dir. Shin Jae-young

Most people, unless it is their job, tend to stay away from underground sewers and for good reason. First time writer and director Shin Jae-young plays upon this fear and decides to spook us that little bit more with this grisly thriller.

In central Seoul, 16 year-old schoolgirl Kim Song-yi (Lee Yeong-yu) is on her way home when she is attacked and dragged down a manhole in the middle of the street, the latest in a number of recent mysterious disappearances. Song-yi’s ex-policeman father Kim Jong-ho (Choi Deok-mun), now a cab driver, is unhappy with the lack of police effort in finding his daughter, calling upon former colleague Pil-gyu (Jo Dal-hwan), who is on suspension, for help.

After a night’s drinking, Jong-Ho steals Pil-gyu’s gun and gains access to police CCTV footage to begin his search for Song-yi. Meanwhile 14 year-old deaf mute Su-jeong (Kim Sae-ron) disobeys her older sister Yeon-seo (Jeong Yu-mi) by going out one rainy night to bring her an umbrella and witnesses an attack in progress, becoming the latest victim to be dragged down the manhole.

It’s an interesting premise having a psychopathic killer operating directly under the streets from a secret dwelling, and director Shin takes advantage of the labyrinthine setting for many nervous chills and taut chase sequences. But, while the visuals and drama can’t be faulted, the story is both overcooked, relying too heavily on contrivances to facilitate the unsettling horrors that await.

The problem is that most of the situations are born out of someone either being careless or not adhering to the protocol of their jobs, which, while certainly are very plausible, become something of a one note joke which runs its course after the fourth retelling. Indeed, if anyone in South Korea had no faith in their police force, this film would be Exhibit A.

Case in point: lone cop Officer Choi (Kim Ku-Taek) who, after discovering a rogue cable attached to the local electricity pole that leads to the manhole cover which amazingly absolutely no-one had spotted before, notices strands of human hair on the manhole cover doesn’t call for back up or advice and ventures down the sewer alone.

You can guess what happens to him and it plays a vital role later when the serial killer Soo-Chul (Jung Kyoung-Ho) uses Choi’s police uniform as a cover for his next attack, but the lack of logic in the set up is a tad frustrating. Similarly Pil-gyu is also a hopeless cop (possibly explaining his suspension) venturing alone into the sewer but only after calling for back-up which apparently is going to take a while to arrive.

Surely with a huge disappearance/murder case that has made the news complete with public warnings about going out alone at nights the police would respond immediately to a concrete lead? No wonder Soo-chul got away with it for so long!

A look at the poster suggests the plight of the two sisters is the main storyline but the search by Jong-Ho is the first plot established only to become a secondary concern. This creates confusion in terms of where our interest should lie since a subplot is meant to differ from the main plot, not be the same.

We have two people searching for their abducted family members, both without support from the police thus are forced to take matters into their own hands. While Jong-ho has his erstwhile police training to draw upon, Yeon-seo has her mobile phone with a tracker to aid her – the only sense of juxtaposition we get – yet both so a better job than the authorities.

As the main antagonist Soo-chul needs a reason for being such a sociopath but since conversation isn’t his strong point we instead are forced to piece together his issues from disjointed flashbacks featuring a house fire which we assume was started by his deranged father and killed his family. From this it seems he is randomly taking people to rebuild this lost family unit.

But we have no sympathy for him as Soo-chul is just relentlessly vicious and unstably violent, showing no discrimination between age or gender. A young boy (Sung Yu-bin) also dwells in the underground lair, dishevelled, beaten and like Su-jeong a mute, but his story is never once revealed and despite signs of empathy shown towards Su-jeong, his actions are quite ambiguous.

Thankfully we can put aside the absurdities and shortcomings of the story just enough to get caught up in the action sequences which do supply some moments of neatly crafted tension and white knuckle chills, complete with SAW-esque traps and extreme bloody violence. The darkness is used to great effect in teasing the nerves in some nice bait and switch scenarios but one can’t help but shake a sense of familiarity in the chases, while seasoned horror fans will be able to countdown to when the jump scares arrive.

Despite the flawed script the cast give their all and Shin is lucky to have real pros at his disposal in the stunning Jeong Yu-mi and wunderkind Kim Sae-ron. The latter plays her usual downtrodden crying teen, this time without speaking, but still elevates every scene through the power of her performance, while Jeong Yu-Mi is equally committed as her worried but determined sister.  

As a supposed ex-policeman Choi Deok-mun doesn’t look the part of the hero but his greatest moment comes during the film’s most heartbreaking scene. Jung Kyoung-Ho handles the silent menace of Soo-chul very well but the character is so undefined that he feels too one dimensional for such a deranged being.

For a first time effort Shin Jae-young shows a lot of flair as director, even if some of his ideas have that textbook feel about them, but as a writer he needs work on a clearer focus of the story and developing the characters. As a serviceable, slickly made chiller to pass the time Manhole at least offers that much.

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