The Hole

review by Pierre Henrotte

(For the original French text.)

The most recent film by Tsai Ming-Liang is undoubtedly one of his best, alongside The Rebels of Neon God.  However, quickly considered, it might seem to be the least immediately tempting, the most theoretical. To everything he used in his films before, Tsai now adds the unity of place. All the film, or almost all, takes place in two apartments, one above the other. The only exception are some sequences in an disused commercial gallery. The viewer in any case never sees the sky and not one scene occurs in the open air. This confinement, added to the aridity of the sparse dialogue and the absence of action, could bother many, especially as the scenes of wandering in his previous films were often successful, but fortunately once again Tsai succeeds in his bet to say something universal using almost nothing.

So the two apartments. Below, a woman lives alone in an apartment perpetually flooded, seemingly doing nothing other than shopping or "mopping" the floor and walls. Above a young man, a grocer (if this term exists in Taiwan). Between the two, a hole in the ceiling. The young man is played by Lee Kang-Sheng, the actor prized by Tsai Ming-Liang who still dazzles the viewer by acting like some sort of Pierrot Lunaire. He seems to play idly. But more than slowness, it would be necessary to speak of arrhythmia. Slowness is deliberate. One can decide to act slowly while his performance appeared to be the result of a perpetual fight against himself.

The film tries to show how the hole will bring the two characters closer together. Their meetings "out-of-the-hole" are rare, and when they occur, cold and distant. Traditional communication seems not to exist any more and is an anomaly, a crack in the daily routine that proves necessary to restore certain social links. If the metaphor seems forced when expressed in words--and multiple Freudian interpretations will certainly be made of it--the metaphor translates rather well to the screen and summarizes the obsessions of the scenario writer perfectly.

The hole is like the relations between the characters. The hole was dug by a plumber, who tried to locate the source of the flood in the woman's apartment. It is a small dirty hole, filled with rubble through which cockroaches appear. Little by little, the hole will grow, will become nicer looking and cleaner (there's a scene where Lee removes rubble and openly makes it the focus of his living room) to gradually become the catalyst bringing together the two characters (this last expression being taken in the literal sense). In parallel, the relationship between the characters is initially hostile, then indifferent before it enables a similarity of their gestures restulting in a true attempt at seduction.

The weakest part of the film is all that refers to the virus threatening Taiwan. Why, with the slow death of the society that Tsai details for us in all his films, did he believe obliged to associate a physical danger, a disease (whose metaphoric meaning is slightly too obvious) which underlines the matter unnecessarily? Undoubtedly this is related to the constraints from Arte [the French cable channel which commissioned ten films on the Millennium from different directors - Editor], which required something specific to the date of December 31, 1999. However, it quickly becomes an abstraction and we can benefit from the film for what it has to offer us.

Concurrently, one finds all the tics of the scriptwriter, which can irritate sometimes, but always end up justified by the story: floods, rain (to which is added here the fall of the refuse that all the inhabitants of the building throw out their window into the interior court), the bathrooms, the toilets, etc....  A whole universe of signs that Tsai re-uses constantly, like a receipt which already proved reliable.

More surprising for those familiar with the style of Tsai Ming-Liang is undoubtedly the sudden erruption of musical comedy scenes which gradually prove to be an exploration of the characters' unconscious, the expression of their desires, their fantasies.

From these sequences comes an amazing poetry even if, like me, one hardly likes musicals. These scenes seem to confirm that love cannot exist any more except in the imagination, that it no longer has a place in modern society. The film can then be seen as the demonstration that these aspirations are profoundly anchored in humanity and that, in the most extreme situations, they dictate the acts of the characters (if there hadn't been a hole, floods, the threat of the disease, and their refusal to leave the building despite exhortations of medical organizations, the two characters undoubtedly would never have felt the need to meet or even to speak to each other). The film is thus a formidable hymn to life, far from the despairing troughs of Vive L'Amour.

The version shown theatrically is slightly different from the televised version broadcast by Arte in December [1998]. It is not a question of a simple long version, diluted by the addition of some sequences but instead scenes that were revised with different camera angles. A viewer tends to be closer to the characters in the theatrical version. The order of scenes is even slightly modified. And then the actor who plays Lee's father in preceding films here plays one character in the search of a can with a specific trademark he knew in his youth, a detail which could attach it to his past. In addition to what this scene says of the society that Tsai Ming-Liang depicts, it is also the occasion for the scriptwriter to say good-bye to Lee Kang-Sheng's former character. Tsai made him an adult. Just for that, the theatrical version is essential.

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