Intimacy and Isolation in Tsai Ming-Liang’s ‘The Hole’

I’m lying down now. I’m looking at the hole you made in the ceiling.

In 1998, a French production house launched an international cinematic project, commissioning filmmakers from ten different countries to envision the impending turn of the millennium. The endeavor was called 2000, Seen By…, and its standout was a 95-minute film from Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang, whose picture of the future was as bleak as it was romantic. His offering, unassumingly called The Hole, defies the conventions usually set by its subject matter: a virus hits Taiwan, nearly wiping out its population and forcing the government to impose strict quarantine zoning.

The film follows two apartment tenants — a man occupying the upper level (Lee Kang-sheng) and a woman in the unit directly below him (Yang Kuei-mei) — who each resolves to stay in their building complex long after the Taiwanese government calls for its evacuation. After a plumbing mishap, a hole appears in the floor of the man’s apartment, giving him a direct portal into the woman’s life. The sudden exposure leads to mounting tension and desire, resulting in an outbreak film that is far more intimate than high-octane, and far more tender than it is wired.

This divergence allows Tsai to explore another aspect of a virus outbreak: the one in which we sit in our homes waiting for it to pass, forbidden from seeing other people until it does. The Hole does not follow its characters on the run as they flee from the impending swarm of sick neighbors; it has no feverish score and no freefall into violent resistance; there are no sterile hospital rooms and no dead bodies. Instead, the film treats fantasy as a survival tactic, prodding at the limits of its characters’ romantic and sexual psyches as they witness each other’s lonely life from the hole.

For the woman, these reveries are expressed through glamorous, Old Hollywood-esque musical numbers peppered throughout the film, all of them set to songs by Cantonese pop icon Grace Chang. The woman is initially the lone star of these episodes, but she is eventually joined by backup dancers, and then by her imagined lover, the upstairs neighbor. These vibrant scenes, so different from the rest of the movie, are elevated by the sensual elegance of Chang’s music. The lyrics are themselves a drawn-out confession of yearning: I… I want… I want you… I want you to… I want you to be… I want you to be my baby… 

Tsai uses these sequences to meditate on a question that may be crossing more than a few minds lately: How do extended periods of isolation make us latch onto glimpses of other people, and to what extent do we find the illusion of comfort or excitement in these glimpses? How do we compensate for an absence of intellectual and physical stimulation that human interaction tends to fulfill? The female tenant endures her hardships by closing her eyes and letting her imagination run its course.

The musical interludes, while something of an escape, are never set beyond the apartment complex. Instead, the building becomes a stage as toilet paper streamers and other household conveniences are grimly repurposed for the set design. That these banal details remain even in someone’s daydreams suggests that fantasy is born from what we know, a temporary salve but not a complete detachment. This is especially true of a scene in which the woman begins experiencing flu symptoms: she closes her eyes, and suddenly she’s performing Grace Chang’s “Achoo Cha Cha” — Achoo! Gesundheit! Her illness still manages to pierce her fantasies.

Still, these lively scenes alleviate the viewer from the rest of the film’s monotonous din: Taiwan is drenched thanks to a rainfall that never ceases, just slightly changes cadence from scene to scene. Sometimes, a radio blares from the confines of the female tenant’s apartment, reporting strange virus cases, government-issued directives, and, occasionally, a cooking recipe. There is scarce dialogue, yet The Hole is never completely silent; the world goes on, even without the roar of human presence.

The tightness in the setting is a departure from the expansive nature of many other virus films, in which mobility is not just necessary for survival, but the very thing on which survival hinges. Instead, The Hole gives its characters narrow worlds, which are then expanded by the crater between them, enabling them to live through another’s eyes. They have two brief encounters outside of the apartment: the first in the shop that the male tenant owns, and the second on their balconies facing the inner courtyard. It is through this second scene that we understand their desire to watch and be watched.

Screen Shot At Pm

The expansion of their worlds is initially contentious. The hole’s positioning allows the upper tenant to watch his downstairs neighbor, and he subjects her to various antics using the hole as a vessel: he vomits into it, he ashes his cigarette over it, and at another point, he pours water through it. Finally, he just gets it over with, sticking his entire leg into the hole, and we watch it swing, disembodied, from the lower unit. He seems uncontrollably compelled to enact these intrusions; at times, the hole glows like a divine light, guiding the two towards each other.

In the film’s most overtly sexual scene, the woman lies directly beneath the hole, phone pressed to her ear, imagining a conversation with the upstairs tenant — “I’m looking at the hole you made in the ceiling” — but we know that he is not really on the other end of the line. As critic Fran Martin wrote in her review of the film, “Tsai’s vision suggests that in spite of … strictly unliveable conditions … the resilience of [the characters’] fantasies and desires enables them to make meaning from their world and go on living.” 

The Hole imagines life’s capacity for joy in its most unbearable moments. And that joy is usually shared with others.

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