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Canon Entry - The Hole (1998)

Inspired by the 1001 Movies to Watch Before You Die, Edgar Wright’s 1000 favorite films and other lists, I am striving to come up with my own personal canon of films.

For those who remember it, the year 2000 was met with a mixture of dread and anticipation. Constant news reports of Y2K, when apparently the computers of the world would all malfunction since everything would set back to the year 1900, inundated the media of the time. Of course, there were countless predictions of doomsday or at least some major natural disaster. It was not a good time to be gullible and easily manipulated.

Perhaps one of the most interesting projects that came about because of “millennium fever” was the 2000..Seen By...project that gathered ten filmmakers to make films about the millennium. They ranged from the darkly existential with Don McKellar’s Last Night to the blithely surreal such as Hal Hartley’s The Book of Life and, of course, Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole.

In The Hole, a strange virus has stricken certain parts of Taiwan. It starts off with flu-like symptoms, then makes the victim exhibit strange behavior such as crawling on all fours and seeking dark places, much like a cockroach. The film is mostly set in one of the quarantined areas that, despite threats of turning off the water on, you guessed it, January 1, 2000, is still inhabited by a few residents including two neighbors - the woman downstairs (Yang Kuei-Mei) and the man upstairs (Lee Kang-sheng).

Much like the film, these two people are, at most, mildly indifferent to the panic of the millennium virus. The man runs a grocery store within the area that few seems to frequent. It is unclear what the woman does, but her imagination manifests on screen as elaborate musical numbers set to the songs of Chinese actress and singer Grace Chang. They are so isolated within their little spheres that they would have never even encountered each other if it weren’t for a hole left by a plumber attempting to fix a leak in the man’s apartment.

I have had trouble getting into Tsai Ming-Liang’s films before. Glacial wouldn’t really begin to describe his style. He loves to linger on...everything. Granted, when I was first watching him, I was relatively new to watching film seriously, and most of the films that I would later come to love seemed like interminable slogs (the films of Hong Sang-Soo for example). There is still a lot of artistry in what Tsai does though. His style allows us to fully immerse ourselves in the mentality of the characters.

For example, the musical numbers in this film, while they are flights of imagination, still take place in the dreary apartment complex of the characters. Often musical numbers are deliberately escapist, and while the woman is clearly trying to escape in her own mind, she can’t help but to be fettered by her surroundings. Even the filmmaking in these elaborate sequences reflects the oppressive nature of the environment. There aren’t a lot of quick edits to disguise people who can’t dance, and it is clear that the woman is lip-syncing. Often, the musical numbers are specific responses to events in the woman’s life such as my favorite number right after she gets into an argument with the man upstairs, she dances with a fire extinguisher that the man had been cradling in a previous scene. No one seeing that scene could say that Tsai does not have a sense of humor.

And perhaps that is how we are supposed to see this film, as a comedy. There are many scenes of passive aggression, such as the little war that both the man and woman engage in using the hole, whether it’s vomiting into the hole, or that funny and bizarre image of the man sticking his foot through the hole, getting stuck and extricating himself only right before the woman could notice a foot waving in her ceiling. The juxtaposition of the dowdy image that Yang has for most of the film and the glammed up performances she gives in her musical numbers is also a fun contrast.

On a more serious note, Tsai manages to sneak in a decent amount of satire as well. The apartment complex could represent complacency - how people will stay in the absolute worst situations as long as they are unmotivated and there is no immediate danger, which is probably how a lot of people felt about something like Y2K. Or else, it could be a satire on media. The environment of this film is so enclosed, so seemingly cut off from the rest of the world, except for the media. Interestingly, the woman does only start exhibiting signs of the millennium virus after hearing about it on TV. Tsai wasn’t the only artist to see how the media was inciting fear so unnecessarily, but he was well-positioned to critique it in his unique way for this film.

The film could also be none of those things and could just be an arty film curio. Ultimately, The Hole seems to be a slight work on the surface, but it is so well-crafted and imaginative that it can contain much more than what it purports to. Tsai manages to create a fully realized world with so little, no mean feat for what was most likely a very limited budget and resources. It also manages to be a surprisingly emotional work. As we see the woman devolve into what seems to be the ravages of the millennium virus, we feel that we are witnessing the horrible inevitable. But when that last slightly surreal moment that blows up into complete escapist fantasy happens, we accept it because Tsai has properly worked his magic on us.

 

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