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Film

The Best Movies You've Never Seen: The everlasting importance of Ming-liang Tsai film 'The Hole'

@Russellisation

Swirling with fear, paranoia and global excitement, the turn of the new millennium was a turbulent time that radiated uncertainty. Whilst some feared the technological breakdown brought on by the millennium bug, others predicted a future marred by the competition of nuclear weapons, and few truly predicted the peculiar reality of the modern world controlled by surveillance, fake news and social media influence. 

Of course, dystopian tales such as George Orwell’s 1984 have been depressingly accurate at predicting modern life, but even that sagacious story omits the existence of the coronavirus pandemic that threw modern life off course like a power cut on a rainy day. One film that did predict this life-changing event, as well as the public hysteria that came with such an event, is Ming-liang Tsai’s 1999 movie The Hole, an insane dystopian musical and germaphobe’s living nightmare. 

With its dank, dark corners, mouldy living rooms, perpetual heavy rain and promise of an ominous incoming virus, Tsai creates an atmosphere of pathetic hopelessness in his understated 1999 classic, made all the more desperate 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. 

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Absent are the boiled skies and spontaneous fires, for this is no normal apocalypse. Instead, futile despair bounces off the melting walls of the apartment block as the audience is kept claustrophobic, constantly in the company of a waring man and woman. Above, a frequently half-naked man seems infatuated with the hole in the floor, as if a brand new body part, yet below, the woman insists upon its repair. 

Aside from occasional shouts of displeasure, they communicate through fantastical musical numbers, expressing their annoyance 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 similar vigour and theatricality. Appearing as quickly as they depart, the songs are each performed within the confines of the apartment block and often with the addition of attempted Hollywood pizzaz in the form of sparkling dresses and seedy flashing LED lights. 

Each performance plays off like a physical expression of one’s own internal insanity, projected as if an attempt to mentally escape from the dire situation of the dying urban environment around them. Dressed up with glitz and glamour, such scenes are melancholy dreams of a future in which the inhabitants of the flat thrive, instead of cowering from the cold, damp and oppressive political order. 

Released at the edge of the 21st century, Ming-liang Tsai’s vision of a post-millennium Taiwan is a worrying one, albeit one in line with the paranoia of the time. Whilst the unspecified disease runs rampant through the city offscreen, the protagonists do little to protect themselves for it is unclear what they even need to protect themselves against.

There’s an essence of accepted despair. After all, the rain won’t stop, the titular ‘hole’ is getting bigger, the walls are peeling and the city is evacuating. Yet, despite this all, much like the public musical serenades that Italian maestros performed on their balconies during the Covid-19 lockdown, there’s cheerful optimism in such elaborate performances that well straddle the line between insanity and defiance.

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