A beautifully structured script, in which the characters ripen and all the elements click together, makes “Manhole” a fine standard-bearer for quality Chinese commercial cinema. Entertaining crime caper-cum-black comedy-romance, which finally opens on the Mainland in November, has been strangely absent from most Western fests’ lineups this year, which is a shame for ordinary auds. First feature by 39-year-old, onetime actor Chen Daming also has considerable remake potential.
Three men wait in a car at night, obviously about to commit a crime. As one of them, Tang Daxing (Sun Honglei), remembers back, his hands start shaking.
Flashback follows Tang as he is paroled from jail and is united with his chanteuse g.f., Mao Xiaohui (Ning Jing), who’s waited for him for seven years. Tang’s parents (Li Xuliang, Sun Guitian) urge him to marry Mao who, though trashy-looking, doesn’t sleep around; but Tang can’t find a job and, in between regular trips to his parole officer, Capt. Lu (Zhao Baogang), he hangs out with old school chums Datou (Sun Min) and Fatty (Jiang Tong), also petty crims.
Meanwhile, Mao starts being courted by a former schoolmate she once despised — Liu Yi (Zhang Chi), now a successful businessman.
After three reels of background, the action switches back to the three men waiting in the car — and then to another car in which two cops are watching them. One of the detectives is Capt. Lu, and pic now limns his backstory: a dried-up marriage to an ambitious wife (Wang Jinghua).
As Tang and Mao drift apart, Tang drifts back into petty crime and stops visiting Lu. In an effort to understand Tang, Lu gets friendly with Mao. Meanwhile, the cops have noticed Tang & Co. following businessman Liu around, maybe with nefarious intent.
Pic then returns to the opening, with several reasonably clever plot twists in the final reels.
The way in which the characters individually grow gives the picture a sense of assurance that percolates down to the performances. Though in heavy make-up and waist-length frizzed hair, Ning reins back on the trashy side of her chanteuse, preparing the viewer for later scenes. Sun is very good as Tang, a gentle giant with an apparently killer punch, who’s actually just a simple, rather bemused guy who’d prefer to go straight. But it’s Zhao, as the sympathetic cop with his own problems, who’s the glue between Ning and Sun’s performances, and the thesp manages to make him the most sympathetic character in the movie.
Lensing by Hou Yong, a favorite of Zhang Yimou, is unshowy, with occasionally jazzy visuals used simply to edge the movie along. Other credits are pro.