Director – Tsai Ming-Liang, Screenplay – Tsai Ming-Liang & Yang Ping-Yang, Producers – Jimmy Huang & Lin Huei-Chin, Photography – Liao Peng-Jung, Art Direction – Lee Pao-Yin. Production Company – Arc Light Films/Haut et Court/China Television/CMCP/La Sept Arte
Lee Kang-Sheng (Man Upstairs), Yang Kuei-Mei (Woman Downstairs)
January 1, 2000. The government announces it is cutting off all water supplies to the city’s quarantine zones. At the same time, there are outbreaks of a virus that causes people to lock themselves away in darkness. In one apartment block, a hole is left by a plumber in one man’s apartment floor, which causes water to flood down into the apartment of the woman below. She is driven crazy by this, while the man upstairs starts to enjoy the ways it taunts her.
The Vancouver International Film Festival, where The Hole was featured, alikened this Taiwanese production to Samuel Beckett. You can see where the obvious analogies come in, although if anything, the playwright The Hole could be most closely compared to is Eugene Ionescu. Ionescu was a master of absurdist one-act plays, each of which would be based on the escalation of a nonsensical idea to the point of the logically ridiculous.
Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that The Hole is more like failed Ionescu. The Hole has a basic idea – a hole in an apartment floor drives one woman insane while the man above finds a curious pleasure in the situation – that would make for fine Ionescu. Indeed, the film could almost work as a play, the action being almost entirely limited to the single location of the two apartments. However, it is as though director Tsai Ming-Liang has no concept of how to do anything with the scenario. An absurdist comedy like this needs to build with minor details at first, which steadily accrue into a surreally overblown apocalypse. Or else it could have been played as an Orton or Pinter-esque black comedy about the cruelties that people inflict upon one another. However, the film never amounts to anything at all.
Tsai Ming-Liang seems determined to make it the dullest film possible – camera shots are long and static and their lack of event infuriating. One has no idea at all what the irregular appearances of a series of song numbers choreographed to the songs of Grace Chang (a Chinese equivalent of Shirley Bassey or Dusty Springfield) have to do with the film. A credit at the end of the film thanks God that in tough times “we’ll always have Grace Chang” – so one gets the idea that this is meant to form some nostalgic/ironic counterpoint to the rest of the film.
Tsai Ming-Liang is a director who has gained some reputation among critical/festival audiences. All of his films seem to centre around issues of people on the margins of society and the way they fit in. Tsai also demonstrates a preference for lack of incident and plot, as well as lengthy shots that go on for minutes at a time, that makes his films a major endurance fest. His other works include Rebels of the Neon God (1994), Vive L’Amour (1994), The River (1997), What Time Is It There? (2001), Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), The Wayward Cloud (2005), I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Visage (2009), Stray Dogs (2013) and Journey to the West (2014).
The film is set on the first day of the year 2000. The Hole was one of a host of international films made to commemorate the millennium commissioned by the French production companies Haut et Court and Le Sept Arte. Others included Canada’s Last Night (1998), Spain’s The First Night of My Life/My First Night (1998), Midnight (1998) from Brazil, Belgium’s The Wall (1998), the American The Book of Life (1998) and Life on Earth (1998) from Mali. Like most of these, the date is no relevance to the story, merely a faddish point of topical interest that the film has chosen to exploit.