Ming-liang Tsai’s film Hole is a germaphobes living nightmare. Dank, dark corners, mouldy living rooms, perpetual heavy rain and an ominous incoming virus. Such creates a pathetic hopelessness, made optimistic by occasional outbursts of song. The pre-millennium avant-garde musical is certainly bizarre, following the lives of two new neighbours, connected by a hole forged between their apartments during an apocalyptic storm of rain and disease.
Gone are the boiled skies and spontaneous fires, for this is no normal apocalypse. In fact it’s not really an apocalypse at all, but it may as well be, with the same hopelessness and desperation. Stuck in between the melting walls of the apartment block, we are kept claustrophobic, constantly in the company of a waring man and woman. The man, on the floor above, strangely infatuated with his hole in the floor. The woman below insistent on its repair.
Aside from occasional shouts of displeasure, they communicate through fantastical musical numbers, expressing their displeasure and infatuation with each other with surprising singing prowess. Each song is borrowed from the works of Grace Chang, whom Ming-liang Tsai greatly admired, and is performed with a similar vigour and theatricality. Appearing as quickly as they depart, the songs are each performed within the confines of the apartment block with the occasional addition of attempted Hollywood ‘pizzaz’, in sparkling dresses and seedy flashing LEDs.
Each performance plays off like an internal insanity, projected outwards. An attempt at escapism from the dire situation of the dying urban environment as well as from their quickly degrading mental state. Though, as Ming-liang Tsai says of these sequences: “I wanted this film to address the issue of the year 2000, but this was already so close to the present era. So with the fantasy of the musical sections, I am able to give a really imaginary science fiction–like feel to the future. To show future, I created the fantasy of a musical dream sequence.”
Released at the edge of the 21st century, Ming-liang Tsai vision of a post-millennium Taiwan is a worrying one, though, one in line with the paranoia of the time. As this, largely unseen disease ravages the city, turning the infected into strange cockroach imitators, the protagonists do little to protect themselves. It’s unclear what they even need to protect themselves against. There’s an essence of accepted hopelessness. The rain won’t stop. The hole is getting bigger. The walls are peeling. But they’re singing, really well. It’s a cheerful insanity that feels strangely optimistic.