Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Hole (1998)

Also Known As -  Dong
Director – Tsai Ming-liang

Set in an alternative reality just before the year 2000, the film exists entirely in a Taiwanese apartment complex that has been almost abandoned. An epidemic known as ‘Taiwan Fever’ has struck the outside world, starting off as flu-like symptoms before the infected individuals start acting like cockroaches, afraid of light, crawling across floors and searching for dark and wet places to hide. In the middle of this, in a cast that could be counted on a single hand and a few extra fingers, is a woman (Lin Kun-huei) and the man living above her (Lee Kang-sheng) forced into close proximity when a hole between their apartments if left allowing them to see each other (or as in one unfortunate case, for someone to vomit down the hole onto the other’s property). Their relationship is very hostile at first, but as the film goes on, a connection is slowly made.

To merely say The Hole is merely an art house drama is a disservice to its creativity and uniqueness. Commissioned as part of a series of films interpreting what the then-oncoming Millennium would be like, this could be seen as the least conventional post apocalyptic virus film in existence and the best I’ve seen so far. Refusing to leave their homes to go to government medical tents, the characters live in a strange blurring of ordinary life and dilapidation with no rage-infected monkeys in sight. There was the constant feeling in the back of the my mind that food shortages in the apartments would eventually happen, but instead of starvation, the symbol of this apocalypse is people eating instant noodles all the time. The issue of there being enough clean water to survive on is explicit, yet water is one of the film’s most prominent motifs – it is continually raining, water is prominent in nearly all the scenes, including other types of fluids, and plumbing is responsible for the hole of the title in the first place. The walls are rotting and people’s wallpaper is flaying at the sides, but with the furniture and possessions of before still in their original places, this is less a wasteland than an ordinary environment transformed into an alien landscape.

Landscape is important for this film because its cinematography by the director’s regular cinematographer Liao Pen-jung is a masterclass. Baring in mind that flat environments can be just as striking if used right, this film triumphantly pushes cinema’s ability of showing even the most enclosed place as three dimensional. The human eye sees an environment, be it the person’s living room or a vast plain, in great depth depending on what angle it is seen in. The cinematography here was clearly done to enforce the contradiction of the claustrophobia and the expanse of the apartment complex. It is a place that can be related to by anyone who has been in a city, even down to there being too many fire extinguishers then needed everywhere, but at times it becomes science fiction. To avoid a pointless tangent, it reminds me of one of the reasons why the current 3D trend in films is somewhat pointless for me, because a standard two dimensional film, if the production crew take it into consideration, can show just as much depth in a flat image. I am reminded of one of the art classes which everyone including myself had to take during secondary school where we spent a couple of lessons drawing three dimensional shapes on paper over and over again; one is able to create depth depending on where one places the image in front of the eye, something this film can attest to and results in images which are both incredible, and exceptionally dank and rundown.

The film isn’t just about environments though, as there is a clear emotional core to this film. There is very little dialogue through The Hole, but you can still feel that the two main characters, played perfectly by both actors, are interacting with each other and their surroundings, seen through the emotions on their faces and in their actions, like actual human beings. The silence also allows the world and the idiosyncratic behaviour of everyone within it to be fleshed out, from the constant noise of rain outside to the horded collection of toilet paper the main female character has, and feel real. Themes of isolation, the lack of communication and of connection can be found in The Hole, and is built upon as the film gets to its (bitter) sweet conclusion...and that’s not including the musical numbers. I have only seen two of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, this and The Wayward Cloud (2006) (the later I need to re-evaluate now), and both of them have musical numbers, a clear trademark the director may use in some of his work. In The Hole, the director will cut to another part of the apartment complex where Lin Kun-huei is suddenly wearing elaborate dresses and lip syncing to songs by the Chinese singer Grace Chang. These scenes have nothing to do with the film’s reality, nor are they dream sequences, but they have importance to everything in it. In a very clever move by the director, the songs and their lyrics reflect the emotions the character feels at that particular moment, which not only works in drawing the viewer more into the film, but takes advantage of how the cultural items we have make up as much of what makes us human beings as our thoughts and feelings do in a meaningful way (and Ming-liang clearly adores Grace Chang’s music, judging from the statement of his at the end of the film which brought a smile on my face). The musical numbers by themselves encapsulate why I think this film is a masterpiece; they are imaginative twists of film conventions, but they also have a deep and meaningful core to them, a description which can be applied to The Hole in general.

I have only seen the film once, but I already hold this up as a truly great film. It is, if I’m going to be very cheeky, one of the best science fiction/fantasy films in existence, far better than the likes of Blade Runner (1982) in that it has enough power in its contents as well as the images, as well as being a romance, a drama, a comedy and many other things that is sublimely put together, a film which clearly comes from the time when Y2K fears of the Millennium were growing, but is still relevant in its themes now. Sadly it might be difficult to get hold of now, which is an absolute shame. If you do find it, I absolutely recommend it as a rewarding experience.