The Hole, written and directed by Tsai Ming-Liang, is a sci-fi musical drama that follows an unnamed man (Lee Kang-Sheng) who lives above an unnamed woman (Yang Kuei-Mei) in a run-down apartment building. In the year 2000, a virus has spread throughout Taiwan, and the government has enacted a quarantine zone around the city, ordering everyone to evacuate. The man and woman both refused to leave. So the film follows various scenes in their lives after an unfinished plumbing job leaves a hole in the man’s floor/ her ceiling, as their lives deteriorate parallel to the degradation of their building from constant flooding.
Despite premiering at Cannes 22 years ago, the film has become especially relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It depicts the act of quarantining and how fear is generated from having little understanding of disease in the early stages of an epidemic.
The cinematography is the real standout aspect of The Hole. Courtesy of Liao Pen-Jung, Tsai’s frequent collaborator, the visuals consistently blew me away. Long lens, deep focus, and limited space brought to life this hyper-industrialized world in such a profound way that only a few movies have done. The cinematography activated a feeling of being both trapped and aimless, making the world feel like a prison. Unfortunately, Tsai put all his eggs into one basket by focusing solely on the cinematography to tell the entire story, which it cannot do. It needs stronger, more developed characters to articulate the feelings the cinematography conveys.
“…the government has enacted a quarantine zone around the city…the man and woman both refused to leave.”
What was truly frustrating about this film is how little it delved into the emotions that arise from such a fascinating and dramatic scenario. In the long 90 minutes spent with these two characters, I learned almost nothing about who they are, their wants, desires, why they chose to stay, and how they feel about it as the movie progresses. They were dejected, aimless, and depressed. Still, because there was such a monumental lack of dialogue and actions, I could not connect with whatever struggles they were facing and the emotions they were feeling. If I had an inkling of who they were, maybe I would’ve understood why neither character seemed to consider evacuating, talking through their shared hole, or why the man refuses to let the plumber in when he comes to fix it.
Randomly spread throughout the movie were musical numbers that featured the woman singing (sometimes to the man). They were of pre-existing songs that were only vaguely related to anything happening in the plot. Why they were in this sci-fi drama about a pandemic is beyond me, but they are a fun diversion from the static narrative. They also highlight the dynamic acting range of Lee and Yang. They effortlessly switched from serious dramatic performances to the over-the-top musical moments filled with dancing and lip-syncing.
The Hole relies solely on its visuals to communicate the film’s meaning neglecting the script entirely. Therefore, despite a strong premise, powerful visuals, and excellent performances, I could not even grasp what it was trying to say by the end. For lovers of Tsai’s other films, the slow-burn query ennui of a Jim Jarmusch or Wong Kar-wai movie, or just a cinephile looking for some quarantine related content to watch during the pandemic, I would recommend this. For everyone else, The Hole deserves to remain buried in the hole of history.
"…relies solely on its visuals to communicate the film's meaning..."