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The Hole (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on June 16, 2013

In the last days of the millennium, Taiwan is struck by an epidemic.  Known only as “Taiwan Fever”, a virus is causing the citizens to exhibit cockroach-like behavior: fear of light, scurrying around on all fours, inability to communicate.  Most of the Taipei residents have fled the city, and essential services like garbage collection and water supply are shutting down.  But a few stubborn souls have remained to stick it out.  One man (Lee Kang-sheng) operates a small grocery kiosk in some unnamed, grim facility.  His downstairs neighbor (Yang Kuei-Mei) is also still around, and there’s a leak in her ceiling.  A plumber comes to fix it, but never finishes the job, leaving a hole in the man’s floor/woman’s ceiling.

I thought I might approach this review by asking “Why is this film in my top 5?”  But the answer to that is pretty simple: Tsai is one of my absolute favorite directors and this is my favorite film by him.  So then the question is: “Why is this my favorite Tsai film?”  You could say that Vive L’Amour is more emotionally powerful, The Wayward Cloud more daring, Visage more idiosyncratic.  You could even say that What Time Is It There is a more complete and accomplished film as a whole and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.

But The Hole is the one where, to me, everything feels perfect.  Although people who are impatient with “slow cinema” will struggle with the pacing, I find it to be beautifully paced, without the long periods of drudgery that — even when effective — can be problematic in some of his other movies.  I’m never bored with it for a moment.  It’s also the most eloquent expression of Tsai’s pet theme of isolation.  As Lee and Yang have their interactions through the hole, they try and fail to make some connection, even if (or rather, because) most of the interactions are antagonistic to some degree.  But in the end, Tsai presents a ray of hope, in one of the most glorious final images (not including the musical bit at the very end) I can think of.  Take special note of the object that Lee proffers through the hole at the end, it’s an important Tsai motif.

The sound design is masterful as well.  It’s a Lynchian soundscape, emphasizing the oppressive ambient hum of a city divorced from humanity.  There’s the incessant downpour, the tortured grind and squeals of the mechanical door in front of Lee’s shop, the constant whirring of fans and air conditioners.  It’s the background noise of urban life, always present but usually drowned out by people, or simply tuned out because everyone’s acclimated to it.

While the film wallows in its wetness, some of the humor is dry enough to be kindling.  But it’s not all deadpan.  Appropriately for a movie so lacking in dialogue (what kind of movie about isolation and loneliness would be heavy on dialogue?), it often plays out like a silent comedy, with near-slapstick antics.  For a cinephile’s delight, there’s a little tribute to Rififi.  And then there’s a lightness of the musical numbers, where Tsai allows himself to get downright silly.  He dedicates the film to Grace Chang, whose lounge-y songs both serve as welcome camp relief from the dark urban decay and as expressions of Yang’s longing for romantic connection.

I never begrudge anyone for not liking Tsai, as long as they give him a fair shot.  He’s one of the most “not for everyone” directors there is.  But if you’re looking to give him a chance, I think this might be the best entry point.  It’s perhaps his least “difficult” work, with humor and a mysterious premise and deep affection for its lonely characters.  Rating: Masterpiece (100)


3 Responses to “The Hole (rewatch)”

  1. Love this movie. Great review!

  2. […] 93. The Hole (1998, Ming-liang Tsai) […]

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