Review: Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Hole”



One of the most interesting things about Tsai Ming-liang’s filmmaking career, considering what an inimitable and uncompromising artist he is, is the fact that three of the nine features he has directed to date have been commissioned projects. This is true of his two most recent films. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Tsai’s first film to be set in Malaysia, the country of his birth, was commissioned by Peter Sellars to be part of the New Crowned Hope Festival, a celebration in Vienna to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Tsai’s latest, Face, was commissioned by the Louvre museum, as the initial installment of its “Louvre Invites Filmmakers” program.

Tsai’s first commissioned film was The Hole, which was part of French production company Haut et Court and television station La Sept Arte’s series “2000 Seen By …,” a collection of eight films imagining the upcoming end of the millennium. The Hole has a vaguely science-fiction premise: Taipei has been struck by a mysterious virus called the “Taiwan Virus” which has as its symptoms bizarre behavior by those stricken with “Taiwan Fever,” which turns its victims into human cockroaches who crawl on the floor scurrying into dark places, hiding from the light. But as is typical for Tsai, he refuses to conform to any of the hallmarks of films like this. The premise is set up at the beginning of the film where, over a black screen with no images, we hear news reports and interviewees describing this situation. The Taiwan government has issued an evacuation order to the cities infected with the virus, and will cut off the water supply to those who remain; garbage collection has already been halted – in the apartment building where the film has set, residents routinely drop their garbage out of their windows. The film begins one week before the end of the millennium; the government has stipulated that on January 1, 2000, water will be cut off. Many of the voices we hear take the government to task for their inadequate response to this crisis. “They didn’t try to protect us,” says one. “To hell with our government!” says another.


The Hole focuses on two apartment dwellers who refuse to heed the evacuation call: a woman (Yang Kuei-mei) plagued by the constant leaks who obsessively hoards toilet paper and tissues; and her upstairs neighbor (Lee Kang-sheng), who goes to work every morning to the convenience store he runs, although he has no customers. The separation between these two lonely souls is breached one day when a plumber visits the man’s apartment to investigate a leak that the woman downstairs has been complaining about, and leaves a gaping hole in the floor, never to return. The rest of the film concerns itself with the consequences of the plumber’s action, which forces a connection between these two people who have probably never spoken to one another before this event. This hole has all the connotations one would expect, including sexual ones (which is made explicit in one scene in which the man sticks his leg into the hole). This hole is also a portal to a fantasy world, which contains the musical sequences that are the heart of the film. Tsai assiduously eschewed non-diegetic music in his two previous films; in The Hole, he breaks this trend in the most glorious way, with five charming and dynamic musical sequences, all featuring the songs of Grace Chang, a popular songstress of the 50’s and 60’s beloved in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia. Although these sequences are influenced by Hollywood and Hong Kong classic musicals, they are much more earthbound, especially in their environments, which are in various areas of this very old, run-down apartment building with leaky, peeling walls. It’s as if the imaginations of the characters in this film are so restricted and limiting that even in fantasy, they cannot truly escape their depressing milieu. Also, it is unclear who these fantasies belong to: the woman downstairs, the man upstairs, or the collective unconscious of the building itself? Tsai provides very witty and humorous transitions in and out of the musical sequences: the first number, “Calypso,” featuring Yang Kuei-mei dancing in an elevator, is preceded by a shot of the hole, with cockroaches crawling out of it; after it ends, we cut to Lee Kang-sheng sprawled out, drunk, in the elevator.



The Hole, despite the pre-millennium tension that permeates it, and the familiar crying and despair that exists in its world, is Tsai’s most light-hearted and hopeful film. And although Tsai would disagree, a shaft of light suggesting a passage to heaven, a proffered glass of water, an outstretched hand, and a final love song from Grace Chang, all lead to what is as close to a happy ending as you’ll find in Tsai Ming-liang’s oeuvre.