Buggin’ Out (The Hole)

Tsai Ming-liang’s The Hole (1998) is at once an apocalyptic science fiction yarn about a pandemic in Taipei, a minimalist art movie about urban alienation, a gross-out comedy with gags involving vomit and bug spray, and a retro musical featuring songs by Grace Chang. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it isn’t really any of those things. Having seen the movie only once, I’m not sure if it all hangs together, but considering how much the film resists generic labels, there’s something appropriate about a reputed minimalist like Tsai attempting to do too many things at the same time.

Behind the opening credits we hear a TV news report about a pandemic in Taiwan, though it isn’t until much later that we learn that the disease—which the film implicitly equates with urban living—is turning people into cockroaches. In response to the pandemic, the government has cut off garbage service in the infected areas, and much of the film takes place in a dilapidated apartment complex where the surviving tenants throw their trash out the windows. The story centers on a woman (Yang Kuei-mei) whose apartment is being flooded with water from a mysterious source that’s causing the wallpaper to peel. As the movie progresses, her apartment becomes darker and more of a hole until the woman starts acting like a cockroach herself.

The other major character is a young man (Lee Kang-sheng) who lives in the apartment directly above the woman’s. In the opening sequence, a plumber (Tong Hsiang-chu) comes by the man’s flat to look for the source of the water leaking into the woman’s apartment, and winds up drilling a large hole in the floor of the man’s living room that allows light, sound, and vomit (among other things) to pass between the two units. This proves to be a source of comic irritation on both ends (as when the man, while peeking into the woman’s apartment, gets a face full of bug spray), and in the film’s climatic sequence, it functions as an escape hatch that saves both characters from their mutual isolation (maybe).

As usual with Tsai, the film’s narration is fairly unrestricted in the way that it moves between the two characters rather than limiting itself to either one’s range of knowledge, and Tsai’s stylistic choices—his preference for long shots over close-ups, and a high-degree of realism in the film’s mise en scène; his rejection of optical point of view shots and expressionist devices (such as wide-angle lenses that distort spatial relationships)—reenforce one’s sense of observing the characters from an objective vantage point. This sense of objectivity provides the basis for some of the movie’s best jokes, as in an early sequence when the man comes home drunk one evening and begins vomiting into the hole. Downstairs the woman is woken up by the noise, but she doesn’t notice the pool of barf (which the viewer can see in the foreground of the image, illuminated by an overhead light coming in from the man’s apartment) until she puts her hands in it.

At other times, the film elides certain events in order to generate a different type of comic effect. In the opening sequence, we see the plumber tapping on the floor of the man’s apartment with a hammer, but the film cuts away before he starts drilling. The next sequence shows the woman returning to her apartment later that evening, mopping up the water that’s still collecting in her living room, and getting ready for bed. After cracking an egg and draining the albumen into a bowl, she steps into the living room and spreads the albumen on her face. The woman is standing there with her eyes closed when some grey dust suddenly falls on her face. Since we haven’t seen the plumber drilling the hole, and the framing hasn’t shown us the hole in the ceiling, it comes as a surprise when the dust hits the woman in the face.

The woman’s discovery of the hole is followed by the first of several fantasy musical numbers in which she lip syncs different 1960s pop songs. These scenes are distinguished from the rest of the movie not only by their use of non-diegetic music, but also the brightly coloured costumes and stylized lighting. In the first of these sequences, set to the song “Calypso,” the camera slowly moves in on the woman singing in an elevator, beginning with an extreme long shot of the lobby of the apartment building, and then crawling to a medium close-up before backing away again. The camera movement conceals an unmotivated shift in lighting, so while the first part of the shot is lit in the same naturalistic manner as the rest of the movie, by the end there’s only an unexplained spotlight illuminating the woman. Therefore, even though these scenes all take place in the same drab apartment complex where most of the movie is set, and while Tsai shoots them in essentially the same long take style as the rest of the film, it’s obvious that they’re supposed to be taking place in the woman’s imagination.

Given the film’s opposition of objective reality and subjective fantasy, what’s noteworthy about the film’s penultimate sequence, in which the man pulls the woman up through the hole with one hand, is its ambiguous realism. Is this really happening or is it another fantasy (possibly a hallucination brought on by the pandemic)? I haven’t seen the shorter version of the film that was edited for TV, but perhaps it’s significant that the title of this version is Last Dance.