Recently, a restored print of the 1998 Taiwanese film The Hole was screened in the New York Film Festival’s online counterpart. It’s not a surprising move, considering the plot of slow cinema auteur Tsai Ming Liang’s film hews frighteningly close to our current predicament. Reading even the most rudimentary summary, one imagines film programmers’ hearts skipping a beat from the ‘relevancy’ of it all. In 1998’s future—the last days of 1999, that is—a horrible virus sweeps across Taiwan, prompting mass evacuation orders. Although its true nature is unclear, the flu seems to cause its victims to gradually lose their minds until they start crawling on the floor and behaving like insects, sometimes dying shortly after. It’s unknown whether this virus is related to the constant downpour of rain that is causing the buildings to fall apart from flooding and water damage.
Despite these terrifying circumstances, some Taiwanese have decided to stay and to isolate in place. Meet Hsiao Kang (Lee Kang-sheng), the eternally lonely protagonist who appears in almost all of Tsai Ming Liang’s films, now spending his quiet days locked into a monotonous routine, working a small market downstairs during the day and retreating upstairs to his tiny, dilapidated apartment at night. His housing complex is defined by melancholy emptiness, and few, if any customers ever come to his shop. Thus, when he discovers the titular hole in his floor that leads to the apartment of a woman downstairs (Yang Kuei-Mei), it becomes the main fixation of his slow, hidden life. How does he reach out and communicate this obsession? Well, by puking down the hole, of course.
While most filmmakers would milk this premise for eerie atmosphere and scares, Tsai-Ming Liang is far more interested in the feelings that despairing isolation inspires, the way we reveal ourselves when we are utterly alone, and the way our need for human connection sometimes feels like a brain eating disease. Tsai-Ming has spent his entire career pulling apart these inexplicable behavioral patterns. He is fixated on those tender moments of self-discovery, the things we find out about ourselves when we are most alone. Whether the focus is on the souls sitting alone at the late night movie theater in Goodbye, Dragon Inn, or the inner-city teenagers striving to find some form of connection in Rebels of the Neon God, his work concerns itself with an interiority that is inherently difficult to portray in the medium of film. How do you visualize unspoken desire, or unutterable connection, or incommunicable frustration? Tsai-Ming Liang is one of those rare talents who successfully speaks to the heart without the aid of narrative (or dialogue, to boot). He is a keen observer of human behavior, first and foremost. The strange things that Hsiao Kang does by himself don’t really make any sense, and for that reason they feel all the more real. They are neither cinematic nor romanticized. Tsai-Ming seems to ask, “we are dumb, irrational creatures, aren’t we?”, perhaps with a sentimental chuckle. He treats these silly little actions, like puking through a hole to show someone you are there, stockpiling mounds of toilet paper, or rubbing egg whites on your skin to see how they feel, as completely understandable. In The Hole, every action is observed with equal care, and thus every bizarre tic is rendered weighty and beautiful. Every useless spasm of our yearning heart is a little gift to the world, a little performance for no one. Speaking of performances for no one, one must mention the dream sequences in the film in which the woman downstairs fantasizes about performing elaborate musical numbers. Completely breaking from the reality the film has established, she bursts into choreographed dance, twirling around the dilapidated halls of the building, lip-syncing to Grace Chang pop songs, and striking poses in glamorous gowns.
The fact that Ming-Liang has dedicated his life’s work to this kind of observation and interiority indicates that, from his perspective, to get to peer into another’s life and see this secret show of desire is a treasure unto itself. Look at these strange little people, aren’t they beautiful? How often do you get to see someone completely unguarded? Isn’t this special?
Moreover, The Hole posits that we are not so alone in our peculiarity as we think we are. Although the man upstairs and the woman downstairs manifest their loneliness in different ways, the important thing is that they feel the same ache, and furthermore, the same desire for each other’s presence. They are glad to know that there is someone out there in the world, someone else who is struggling to connect with their surroundings. The only real conflict in the film is found within. Both the man and the woman sabotage themselves constantly, hesitating to reach out, showing affection in an intentionally obfuscated manner, perhaps scared that this adoration will not be reciprocated, that they are not as important to this Other in the same way as they are important in their lives. Like peering through a tiny hole in the floor/ceiling, so much of romance is trying to imagine an interior through small hints of sight and sound and smell, guessing at what is hidden in the mind behind that body. The pair avoid eye contact when they pass each other in the hall. The woman has imaginary phone conversations with the man, talking into the void. He sticks his leg through the hole into her apartment only when she’s not home. Falling for someone through a hole is absurd, but only as absurd as falling for someone through texts or pictures.
Indeed, try as those critics and programmers might to position it as a “film for the pandemic” or a relevant text in the era of social distancing, The Hole is bigger than that. It is a film about the human condition, period. Coronavirus or not, we are lonely, fragile beings. We are horrifyingly unequipped to process these tangled messes in our heads, let alone try to communicate that mess to another. And yet we try it anyway. We need someone else. Someone to dance with. Someone to drive us through the slow days. Someone to be lonely with. Someone to tell us they get it, even if they can’t, really.