Tsai Ming-liang, the prodigiously talented Taiwanese filmmaker whose previous two films, “Vive l’amour” (1994) and “The River” (1996), won major prizes at the Venice and Berlin festivals, respectively, has come up with an eerie, dank, claustrophobic mood piece with his fourth feature, “The Hole.” This end-of-the-millennium story, though his shortest feature to date, is the first of his films in which the running time feels overextended; pic started out as a contribution to a French TV series of one-hour films about the turn of the century. Although Tsai’s bold vision pays off in a sublime conclusion and will be compulsive viewing for Asian cinema buffs, film’s minimalist dramatics make this a marginal commercial entity internationally.
Taipei is in the grip of panic. After days of endless rain, some kind of epidemic is afflicting the city, perhaps borne by cockroaches. Sections of the city have been quarantined, the water cut off. Inhabitants are warned that victims of the virus behave oddly, crawling on the floor like animals.
Virtually a two-hander, pic concentrates on a man and a woman who live in identical apartments in a run-down building in a quarantined area. The man (Lee Kang-sheng) works in a food store, but there are no customers anymore (except for an old-timer looking for a brand of sauce that hasn’t been manufactured for years). At night, the man drinks beer and slumbers. The woman (Yang Kuei-mei), whose existence is equally desultory, is a compulsive hoarder of toilet paper rolls.
The man is visited by a plumber investigating a leak; the plumber makes a hole in the floor and leaves, promising to return. In the apartment below, bugs fall from the hole in the ceiling. The rain pours down ceaselessly, the woman retreats into herself and the man becomes more and more curious about his neighbor, who he observes through the hole between their apartments.
The simple storyline ends on a moment of epiphany, a beautifully lit and staged denouement that comes across as a magical expression of love.
This is a film in which nothing much happens on the surface. The two characters live their boring lives, but their routines are shaped by strange circumstances. Yet for most of the film, Tsai’s confident direction creates such a strong atmosphere that even when pic is at its most minimal and repetitive, it remains watchable.
In a departure for the director, the narrative is broken up four times by musical fantasy sequences evoking Hong Kong musical films of the ’50s: Yang Kuei-mei mimes to the songs of Grace Chang, sometimes accompanied by backup dancers saddled with some rather cheesy choreography.
Tsai’s evocation of a decaying, disease-ridden environment can be seen as a commentary on the shaky foundation of Taiwan itself. The familiar image of a prosperous, bustling Taipei is nowhere to be found in this setting of the mildewed, flooded apartment building and tacky warehouse-like area where the man works and whose only other inhabitant is a stray cat.
Lee has acted in all of Tsai’s previous films, and his character here seems almost an extension of those roles. Yang Kuei-mei, who was memorable in “Vive l’amour,” is extraordinary here, too, both as the woman suffering from the millennium virus and, in the musical segs, as a glamorous entertainer.
The film’s production design plays a major contribution, and the constant sound of heavy rain, which becomes nightmarish after a while, plays an important role in establishing the film’s mood of damp despair.