Hellevator: The Bottled Fools
Romaji: Gusha no Bintsume
Release Date: June 13th, 2005
Running Time: 96 mins.
Director: Hiroki Yamaguchi
Writer: Hiroki Yamaguchi (Screenplay),
Starring: Luchino Fujisaki, Yoshiichi Kawadam Ryosuke Koshiba, Kae Minami, Yuuka Nakabo,
Hellevator: The Bottled Fools is such a funny title because it makes
one think of a killer elevator but if you want one of those you will have to watch the silly, schlocky Dutch film called De Lift (1983). As fearsome and as fearsomely silly as the title sounds, the elevator isn’t so much of a threat rather it’s the people who are trapped inside it (the bottled fools) who make things hellish for themselves. As Jean-Paul Satre once said, ‘hell is other people.”
The film starts impressively with some world-building. The opening shot after the credits takes place in a long shadowy corridor full of grimey people dressed in odd clothes who are loitering around like homeless people under a bridge waiting for food to be handed out. Cutting through this crowd and walking towards the screen in a distinctive and familiar sailor suit is Luchino, a girl on her way to school.
She is our main character. She likes to smoke, a felony in her country, and a cigarette she discards has disastrous consequences later on…
As we follow her morning journey we get shots that establish the world around her. I assume it is morning since concrete and metal surround everyone. We never see the sun or the outside world. The film takes place in what seems to be a subterranean society which stretches deep underground with hundreds of floors only accessible by lift operated by an automaton-like attendant and each floor serves a specific purpose: level 128 is communities of company housing and single dormitories and level 123 is communities for the general hospital and the cemetery.
What is on level 1? Presumably the surface but any talk about that is frowned upon.
Luchino and the lift attendant are joined by a variety of people: a scientist, a moody young man wearing oversized shades and headphones, a mother and a baby. With Luchino in the elevator we get to the interior location and with the people that gives the film its title but what traps them?
The elevator reaches level 99, communities for convicts and prisons, and on step two guards and two convicts, a serial rapist and a serial bomber on their way to an execution. The passengers are intimidated by them but they will soon reach their destination when… an explosion happens. A cigarette tossed near a fuel can rocks the lift, shutting it down.
Things go downhill for the passengers bottled up in the lift…
Despite being a low-budget film, Hellevator has a very distinctive personality and visual look. The sets and locations and everything in them save the actors are artificial, gloomy, drab, and claustrophobic, fitting for an underground world.
Budget limitations have forced the director to be artistic and root aroun the trash heap and find enclosed spaces easy to shoot in. What this gives to the viewer is a society where function has replaced form and there is little beauty on show. It is an Orwellian dystopia, one where everyone is monitored by an ever-present state security apparatus and that feeling is reinforced by the art direction and props in the film which are done in a retro-futuristic style common in film adaptations of George Orwell’s book 1984. Televisions are tubular and have knobs and dials, electronic typewriters clack in the background of interrogation scenes, there are rotary phones and so forth. Then there are the grotesque elements like eyeball security cameras, at once absurdly funny and cheap-looking but very worrying. The cheapness of the sets and props is actually a boon for the setting since it gives this world a lived-in feeling, as if all these elements are scavenged and re-used.
The visuals exude the sickness of that society, the leeching out of humanity, and we wonder at the mystery of how it got to that point. We wonder all the more because there is a layer of satire about our own lives in the world we see on screen.
Everything and everybody we see on screen is something or someone we would come into contact with but hyper-stylised and made symbolic of that world’s dysfunctions (and our own). We witness a small synchronised army of salarymen march onto the elevator, black-suited automatons armed with briefcases and bulky rotary telephones that act like mobilephones. A grandmother takes her granddaughter to hospital, the girl has a child’s toy but it is not a fluffy bunny, it is a brain in a jar on wheels with eyes bouncing around on springs. The police have been replaced by an Owellian security force called the Surveillance Bureau who are jack-booted gun wielding thug. There are schoolgirls in their distinctive outfits showing that even in this seemingly troubled world the sailor suit will survive.
Despite the scant resources at hand for the director, intelligent design of the props and the locations and the colour design give the viewer a lot to think about.
The small budget, expended on these details, finds itself saved by the fact the action takes place in the elevator which is really a stifling setting. It also takes place in the heads of the characters, particularly Luchino. This is where the film comes a bit unstuck.
At first, everyone seems normalish (except the criminals) and very Japanese in the way they seek consensus in how to get the elevator working again but as the situation in the elevator deteriorates and the criminals pose a growing to their fellow passengers, the veneer of civilisation slips away. The housewife, the respectable scientist, the young man, and the guards and convicts are soon arguing with each other and over the top violence rears its head. The elevator is soon awash with blood as we witness the inner madness and fears in each character inculcated into them by society. The problem is that the characters are thinly written. Characters who are meant to be enigmatic are dull or too obtuse to read anything into for large parts of the film. Most do not go beyond archetypes and only reveal two sides to themselves, their role in society and their fear of dying or being arrested and it is hard to care about people screaming at each other when we are not invested in them. A frenzy of emotion is built up but it is somewhat schematic and hollow, the gear shifts of the plot heard painfully in every interaction and piece of dialogue.
There is little to cling to in terms of humanity.
Or maybe that is the point. Their society and surroundings have stripped their souls down to a rotten wounded core and the resulting carnage is only to be expected when people are cooped up in horrendous settings like this.
Flashbacks to Luchino’s past life paper over this lack of empathy to some degree by providing a little depth and a plot twist involving psychic powers that throws everything into question. What transpires for Luchino and the audience from here on out is a deluge of disorientating nightmarish imagery of abuse at the hands of her thuggish father and her time in a mental asylum of sorts. It mixes in with her present reality as characters in the lift weave in and out of her past. It is a fearsome sensory experience which matches the world-building earlier in the film.
Is Luchino going mad? Is she psychic? Or has the pressure of the situation broken her mind? Nothing is explained and it is frustrating at first but I found that, unlike a lot of straight-to-DVD releases, this one is worth re-watching to see what is true and false. The entire elevator sequence post the psychic revelation makes a lot more sense and answers many questions.
Being trapped in a confined space is enough to drive anybody mad but these characters have extra reason because of how broken their society is. They are effectively trapped together whether they are on an elevator or not and the threat of the state hangs over them. Plus there’s also the mystery of what’s above the first floor…
Whatever slight failings there are in terms of characterisation is made up for in every other department. The setting is a major strength and there are many visual flourishes seen in the editing which means that even though a lot of the action is confined to an elevator it is still fun to watch. I would be interested in seeing more of this director’s work and last year he released Wonogawa. I will watch Hellevator again. On top of being an atmospheric sci-fi film it becomes a tricksy psychological ride which can be interesting to wade through.