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The Hole (Tsai Ming-Liang) 1999

    Tsai Ming-Liang’s stripped down sci-fi film The Hole looks at our future with a sense of bleak disdain. Set in the week before the year 2000, the movie is set in a Taiwanese tenement that has been mostly evacuated because of the outbreak of an epidemic that causes people to fear light, crawl around and generally act like cockroaches. There are essentially two characters in the film, and I’m not certain that either is graced with a name (the credits simply call them “The Man Upstars” and “The Woman Downstairs”). Due to the disease, the area that they are in, yet refuse to leave (for unstated reasons), has been quarantined, with the government threatening to shut off the water supply at the dawn of the millennium. Their lives seem to be exceptionally empty, since any friends and family that they might have once had seems to have already moved on. When a plumber leaves a hole in the floor, opening a gateway between their rain soaked apartments it offers the chance for communication, though nothing about achieving that desired connection is simple here.


    Tsai’s film sets up a complicated series of visual gags that demonstrate the corporeal and ethereal barriers that exist between his characters. The incessant rain that floods the apartment complex parodies the threat of an end to their water supply, and the scenes in which we watch the characters urinate serve to remind us that our need for water is almost a parody in itself, since we simply expel the bulk of it. The titular hole between the apartments allows an opportunity for the director to reference Rififi as well as a chance for Tsai to further reduce the conditions that these humans live in. They casually listen to and peek at each other through it, each yearning for the other, but when faced with each other in person, the result is awkward.

    The pessimistic outlook that punctuates most of the film is occasionally spruced up by musical dream sequences that the woman has, which function similarly to those of Selma in Dancer in the Dark. Her wish fulfillment is impossible in the hostile environment that she lives in however, so it’s a bit of a mystery as to why she remains there. Perhaps, as her stockpiles of toilet paper suggest, she’s a neurotic creature of habit, and the prospect of change frightens her. The same could be said of the man as well, and the underlying implication of the film seems to be that in modern society, we’re not that different from cockroaches to begin with. Although the viral outbreak in The Hole is eventually deemed “Taiwan fever”, the lack of specificity in so many of the film’s other details suggests we’re meant to see this state of affairs as a global affliction. The humor and ennui that Tsai’s vision evokes in that condition is both unique and compelling.




Jeremy Heilman