I watched a lot of great films when I took the Introduction to Film class at U of M, but nothing tops The Hole. Infamous Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s wildly inventive film is especially relevant as the United States enters a full year of quarantine. The Hole exists in a genre all its own — it’s slow cinema, a jukebox musical, and a horror film. Above all, it’s a commentary on human connection.
The Hole was part of the 1998 “2000, Seen By…” project — an international film challenge to produce a film depicting feelings toward the new millennium. Despite an evacuation ordered by the government at the onset of a global pandemic, the two characters Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng) and “the woman downstairs” (Yang Kuei-mei) decide to remain in their apartment building. As the disease progresses and their world becomes deserted, they begin communicating through an unpatched hole in the floor which connects their two apartments.
There are only six characters credited in the film, four of them having only a few minutes or mere seconds of screen-time. This — along with the constant rain — emphasizes the loneliness and vast emptiness of the world the main characters inhabit, and makes this world more intimate for the viewer. There is very little dialogue throughout the film, so it relies heavily on visual cues. The drained color, long stretches of near-silence, and minimal camera movement are the palette with which Ming-Liang paints the feelings of isolation with perfection.
However, not all hope is lost for Hsiao and the woman downstairs. Hsiao still attempts to run the small market he owns, but eventually he finds spying on the woman downstairs to be more fitting entertainment. Though they initially despise each other (and seek to anger each other purposefully), the woman downstairs develops feelings for Hsiao. These desires are articulated in the most daring way possible for the film — through unannounced flashy dance numbers in which the woman downstairs lip syncs to the classic pop music of Grace Chang.
In these musical numbers, the world becomes colorful again. While reality is dark and dreary, the woman downstairs’ dreams are bursting with life. Even at the very end, when her situation becomes desperate, she slow dances with Hsiao in her fantasy world. All of these scenes take place in the apartment building, as if that is all that’s left in the universe.
The majority of the songs in the film are about romance. The woman downstairs’ desire for companionship in what appears to be a hopeless environment is the essence of human nature. Hsiao and the woman downstairs represent something that is truer than ever now: in the claustrophobic universes our homes have become, we all need the kindness of one another. As rain invades the woman’s apartment, causing all her wallpaper to fall off, and the hole invades Hsiao’s apartment, they find comfort in knowing that there is still someone on the other side of the floor.
The Hole was already incredible before the pandemic. However, I’ve learned to appreciate it even more now. My apartment is my world, too, and I’m sure yours is as well. If there is anything to learn from The Hole, it’s that amongst the fear, mundanity, and sluggishness of isolation, hope exists. All that’s left to do is dream it.