The Hole (1998) is Tsai Ming-liang's beautiful little film about a small part of the world at the millennium, ending not with a bang but with a whimper. The Taiwanese filmmaker sets his film presumably in a Taipei apartment building in an area where the government has encouraged its residents to evacuate. There is an epidemic in the area which is only second to a water shortage. "People cannot live on rainwater, alone" says a radio voice, mildly, over the opening credits. Two residents, however, have chosen to remain in the area and in the apartment building. Upstairs neighbor, portrayed by Lee Kang-sheng, is visited one day by a plumber who tells him that the downstairs neighbor, portrayed by Yang Kuei-mei, is experiencing a water leak. In order to discover if the leak is originating in the upstairs apartment, the plumber destroys part of the floor to expose the piping, creating a hole in the floor where the two neighbors are able to interact. Allegory is rare in Post-Modern art, because of its often transparent and focal nature. Fortunately, I rarely pay attention to it when its present in either film or fiction, for example, and surely, by reading the short plot set-up above, one can glean, at least superficially, some of the allegory within The Hole. As Tsai Ming-liang has emerged as one of cinema's finest filmmakers, it appears any allegory is wholly created by its viewer. The lithe film is deeper in its emotion and creative rendition, closer to Surrealism or Romanticism than any other school of art. The Hole is an apocalyptic film set in an alternative modern times which, save creative flourishes, looks exactly like our own. In one of the most humorous sequences, the upstairs neighbor goes to work at his stall in a market. The market, which one could presume is extraordinarily busy on any given day, is dead quiet. Kang-sheng's character is not deterred, and he resumes his routine: he opens his stall, prepares his wares, and before the customers hit the market, he feeds a stray cat that haunts the area. Littered around the empty stalls are myriad cans from previous days' feeding. The cat eats heartily. A customer arrives at Kang-sheng's stall and asks for a particular brand of bean sauce. Kang-sheng's character tells him that the brand has been discontinued for some time. The customer is disappointed and chooses to exit Kang-sheng's stall and find another vendor. For minutes, the customer wanders around the empty stalls, like a maze, before exiting the market area into the daylight.
This scene, like many in The Hole, reminds me of a celluloid painting and it makes sense only within its own context. Two later scenes in the market are more affecting as each builds on the other. Kang-sheng's character discovers another vendor within the market whose behavior involves not speaking and crawling on the floor like an animal. When Kang-sheng's character gives chase, the vendor retreats into a dark hole in the wall where Kang-sheng's character lets him stay. (The vendor's behavior is a symptom of the epidemic.) In the following market sequence, a hazmat crew arrives to fumigate the market, unaware or uncaring as to whether anyone is still present in the market. In a foreground, low-key composition, Kang-sheng appears in frame carrying the cat and like a cat, Kang-sheng is scurrying to leave the area. In a particularly sad touch, Kang-sheng loses hold of the cat and is forced to abandon it as the hazmat crew fills the stalls with its chemicals.
The downstairs neighbor, portrayed by Yang Kuei-mei, is incensed by her upstairs neighbor. From the first frame from within her dwelling, Kuei-mei mops up the leaking water in her apartment with dirty rags. The wallpaper is soaked and peeling, and it is quite evident that her dwelling is nearing complete ruin. Yet she stays. In subsequent sequences, Ming-liang shows the two neighbors engaging in similar behavior simultaneously in separate dwellings. In a signature Tsai Ming-liang touch, there is little dialogue within The Hole. In an almost literary touch, Kuei-mei's consciousness is rendered through musical sequences, as Kuei-mei performs song and dances to the music of Grace Chang. Not surprisingly, Ming-liang is able to take the antique songs and their lyrics and wholly and effectively weave them into his narrative. Like many other scenes, these sequences make their sense in their own context. Like Grace Chang's musical style, The Hole is pure and a throwback to cinema before, yet it's firmly rooted in its Post-Modern era. The Hole is the type of film that makes me not think of cinema as a product and instills the belief in the me that there are still artists making films. The Hole, and Tsai Ming-liang cinema in general, shows the beauty of subjectivity. (At the time of this writing, subjectivity in cinema is my current obsession, and films which take subjectivity as its focus are the only ones really getting my attention). The Hole is a lithe, playful film with a very carefree sensibility yet amazingly affecting without ever seemingly intending to be so.