Wild Women and Mechanical Men: A Review of The Hole by Fran Martin
The Hole is the fourth feature film by Malaysian-born Taiwanese art house director Tsai Ming-Liang, following Rebels of the Neon God (1992), Vive L'Amour (1994) and The River (1996). Critics of Tsai's films usually emphasise what they interpret as Tsai's relentless pessimism about the state of human relations in the postmodern urban dystopias of Taiwan in the aftermath of the 'economic miracle.' But what I see in his cinema - perhaps in The Hole more obviously than in any of his previous films - is rather an exploration of new ways of being in Taiwan's emergent post-industrial, culturally hybrid society. Rather than a nostalgic lament for the lost plenitude of the past, I read in Tsai's cinema the faint inkling of novel possibilities produced out of the difficult conditions of the present. In The Hole, this tantalising sense of possibility is strongly linked to the film's exploration of feminine desire.
Like his previous films, The Hole uses an enigmatic symbolic language to explore social alienation in the bleak cityscapes of contemporary Taiwan. Seven days before the turn of the millennium, a rain-sodden Taipei City is under siege by a mysterious virus. Symptoms include fever and an acute photophobia that drives sufferers to scuttle like cockroaches in search of dark, isolated hiding places. As a result of 'Taiwan Fever' sections of the city are quarantined and their essential services cut off by the government. The film is set in an apartment block in a quarantine zone where residents, played by Lee Kang-Sheng and Yang Kuei-Mei, remain in defiance of quarantine regulations. Yang's apartment, directly below Lee's, develops a leak and a plumber in search of the leaking pipe bores a hole in Lee's floor and Yang's ceiling. The hole that now joins the two apartments is large enough to see through, and Yang and Lee develop an ambivalent, wordless relationship as a result of their new proximity. Yang succumbs to the virus, and in the final scene, Lee's arm extends through the hole in her ceiling, offering her a glass of water. Finally, Yang grasps Lee's arm and is lifted through the hole into the brightly lit offscreen space of Lee's apartment.
Actors Lee Kang-Sheng, Yang Kuei-Mei and Miao Tien are familiar from Tsai's previous films, and The Hole's emphasis on the desolation of the millennial city also echoes Tsai's earlier three-part film cycle. The visual world of the narrative sections of this film is divided between an all-but-deserted indoor market, tiled in cracked and dingy white; and the identical boxlike apartments of Lee and Yang, characteristic of Taipei's medium-rise bunker-style architecture circa 1970. A relentless roar of rain and the eerily cheerful voice of the television dominate the film's soundscape. The unforgiving realism of Tsai's depiction of the city is made weirdly hyperbolic by his stylised cinematic language, particularly in his characteristically ruthless use of the long take. The apocalyptic vision of Taipei that results compels an uncanny combination of recognition and horror.
So far, so dystopic. But what sets this film apart from Tsai's previous films is its use of song and dance sequences set to the music of Hong Kong chanteuse Grace Chang (Ge Lan). Chang, originally from Shanghai, sang and danced in Hong Kong's Hollywood-style musicals of the 1950s and was immensely popular with fans in Hong Kong, Taiwan and across Southeast Asia - including the young Tsai Ming-Liang, who recalls her songs from his adolescence.
 Chang is remembered by these audiences for her daring performance style and risqué lyrics that suggest an unruly female sexuality - for example in 'I Want Your Love' [Wo Yao Nide Ai] and 'Vixen' [Yanzhihu], both of which feature in The Hole. The film's musical sequences are re-enactments of Grace Chang's own re-enactment of the conventions of the Hollywood musical: a doubly denaturalised theatricality. In this, they take the meaning of camp performance to a new level.
The kitsch glitz of the film's song and dance numbers makes a startling contrast with the drab everyday-ness of other scenes. Tsai says of the film's use of the musical numbers:
Those luxurious Hollywood-style Hong Kong musicals of the 1950s ... glorified the peace and sweetness of life, even to the point of something like decadence.... In fact, when I look back on the past now what I'm most nostalgic for is the peaceful sweetness of my adolescence. So when dealing with the fantasies of contemporary folks I naturally turn to the past. I use Grace Chang's songs and the Hollywood-style song and dance scenes and costumes to draw a contrast with the reality that exists outside of those scenes.
The re-staging in millennial Taipei of Chang's glamorous song and dance numbers does produce some fabulous contrasts. My favourite sequence is the one set to Chang's song 'Sneezing' [Da Penti]. Yang has begun to experience the flu-like symptoms of the onset of Taiwan Fever, and the film cuts from a scene with her sneezing in the bathtub to a musical sequence set on the worn concrete staircase of the otherwise deserted indoor market. Yang slinks down the centre of the staircase in a baby pink sequined mini-dress with a fuchsia feather detail and white gloves, lip-syncing to Chang's cha-cha, while four men in tuxes and hot pink bow ties and cummerbunds dance suavely around her. The words of Chang's song explain her continual sneezing by reference to the men who are constantly thinking about her and clamouring for her attentions. Amid all this stylised glamour, the shot foregrounds the cracked and chipped grey concrete of the market staircase. As the men are replaced by four female dancers in diaphanous pastel dresses, the scene shifts to another part of the market where rolls of plastic bags hang from the ceiling, waving about the dancers like festive streamers. The sexy sweetness of Chang's voice and the cartoon-like camp of the costumes and choreography, juxtaposed with the banality of the rolls of plastic bags and decrepit concrete staircase, produces a powerful sense of pathos. But it also compels us to re-see the dull everyday spaces of the market in the light of the idiosyncratic memories, fantasies and desires that their inhabitants, like Yang's character, bring to them. Seen in this light, the dilapidated concrete and tile food market becomes a kind of magical space.
But the song and dance sequences are not the film's only optimistic element. The other obviously optimistic image occurs in the final scene, where Lee and Yang finally make contact as Lee lifts Yang up out of the desolation of her ruined apartment and into the light of his own. This glimmer of hope at the close of the film recalls the final scenes in Tsai's earlier films. In The River, Lee Kang-Sheng's character suffers a mysterious and debilitating neck pain and he unwittingly has sex with his own father in a men's sauna. But in the final scene of that film, he stands on a hotel balcony at dawn, gazing about him at a new day filled with the mingled sounds of traffic and birdsong. He wanders for a moment into the offscreen space of the balcony then returns, and Tsai interprets his voluntary re-entry into the frame as a symbol of hope. In Vive L'Amour, the final scene finds Yang Kuei-Mei's character weeping endlessly in the desolate, muddy space of Taipei's Da'An Forest Park, still under construction. Taiwan-based critic Chang Hsiao-Hung reads the unfinished space of the public park at the close of that film as an ambivalent symbol of unrealised possibility. With Yang's ascent into the golden light-filled space of the hole, The Hole also closes with the suggestion of utopian space: a magical place as yet beyond our field of vision, but in which hope for a different future might be imagined.
The Hole also takes an understated comic delight in the everyday ruses of people making do under the hostile conditions of life in the contemporary city. Annoyed with Lee's peeping through the hole into her apartment, Yang attacks him with a fierce squirt of insect spray. Lee springs back nimbly and grabs an outsize aluminium wok lid which he waves about with comic vigour to disperse the spray. Preparing to enlarge the hole, Lee ingeniously extends an umbrella into Yang's apartment and opens it up to catch the dust and chunks of plaster that he chips away; he then closes the umbrella and hauls the rubble up into his apartment. We watch Yang sitting on the toilet holding a green plastic basin over her head to catch water from her leaky ceiling, while sarcastically cursing an unhelpful plumber on her cordless phone. These and other details bespeak endearing human creativeness in the face of catastrophe.
Tsai's cinema's fleeting suggestions of hope preclude a reading of his films as naïve nostalgia or pure pessimism. I think the ambivalent sense of hope that glimmers at the edges of The Hole crystallises most strongly in the musical sequences. Interestingly, the enigmatic joyfulness of these scenes relates to this film's unprecedented focus on the sexuality of a female character. This focus sets the film apart somewhat from Rebels, Vive L'Amour and The River, which concentrate primarily on Lee Kang-Sheng's character and his tentative explorations of homosexuality. In The Hole, Lee's character is as passive and hard to read as ever (Tsai Ming-Liang once delightedly described Lee's acting style as resembling that of a robot in slow-motion). In this film, Lee's trademark style makes him seem almost like a screen onto which the desires of Yang's character are projected. The musical scenes where Yang lip-syncs to Chang's songs draw an overt parallel between the unruly, aggressive sexuality that Chang represents and Yang's own simmering desires. In the film's most explicit portrayal of Yang's sexual fantasy life, we watch her speaking on the phone to an imaginary someone whom, it is implied, is Lee. Performing a fantasy of pleasurable exhibitionism, she tells him she is lying down looking at the hole he has made, and that she sees his eyes looking at her. The film then cuts to a scene with Lee at the market: we know he is not at home looking at Yang, nor on the phone to her; the erotic pleasure of the scene is entirely the product of Yang's imagination.
In the film's final scenes, Yang attains a state of something like redemption. When Lee passes her the glass of water, in her feverish state she grasps it with both hands and drinks thirstily with the intense concentration of a small child. Again, her movement up and out through the hole in her ceiling, aided by Lee, suggests a kind of gender-skewed birth scene. Following this, as Yang and Lee slow dance to Chang's languidly romantic melody in 'I don't care who you are' ['Wo Bu Guan Ni Shi Shei], Chang's lyrics sing out as the credits roll:
I don't care who you are
I'm intoxicated in your embrace,
Our hearts beat as one
Let's taste the flavour of romance.
A pair of swallows flies toward the sky;
In the pond mandarin ducks swim here and there.
I want to ask you why we always follow one another
In pairs that won't be separated?
One might read the interposition of this exaggerated romantic idyll as simply highlighting the irony of the real conditions of the two characters: isolated strangers in the metropolis, never really knowing who the other is. But, what the camp excess of this final song communicates to me as much as this is something about the productive power of desire. The song suggests that in spite of ostensible reality ('I don't care who you are'), Yang's character compulsively - even perversely - maintains her faith in the codes that produce meaning and pleasure. For her, these are the codes of love and romance, cited through the self-consciously clichéd symbolic language of swallows and mandarin ducks. Tsai's vision suggests that in spite of the strictly unliveable conditions in which people are nevertheless forced to live, the resilience of their fantasies and desires enables them to make meaning from their world and go on living. So much the better if they can do so to the score of Grace Chang, whose songs remind of the potency of yearning in the face of impossible realities.
The photo for The Hole is from: The Hole (Dong)
 Tsai, 'Tsai Ming-Liang tan Dong' ('Tsai Ming-Liang on The Hole'), in The Hole screenplay, Taipei: Wanxiang, 1998, p. 106.
 Tsai, 'Tsai Ming-Liang tan Dong', pp. 106-107, my translation.
 Tsai in interview with Chen Baoxu, 'Yuwang, yapo, bengjiede shengming' [A life of desire, repression, and falling apart] in The River screenplay, Taipei: Crown, 1997, p. 59.
 Chang Hsiao-Hung, Yuwang xin ditu: xingbie, tongzhixue [Queer desire: gender and sexuality] Taipei: Lianhe Wenxue, 1996, pp. 104-105.
 Tsai,The Hole screenplay, p. 188.