“Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #9: The Hole (1998, Tsai)

August 19, 2011 — 6 Comments

The trouble with The Hole is that there just isn’t enough there. The film itself is very good, well crafted, plays with the theme of loneliness and human connection in a great, unique way, but it’s just lacking. I think what it comes down to is a sense of development in the characters. As it stands, The Hole would have made for a brilliant short subject, but as a 90 minute feature it doesn’t do enough to justify its length.

The Hole is set in Taiwan, ever so slightly in the future (December 1999!), and in world where a viral epidemic has forced the entire population to evacuate into quarantine zones. But there are a few people who decide to stay home, those are our main characters. Two people, a man and a woman, living in an apartment building that’s nearly devoid of life. It’s an incredibly lonely existence, and Tsai renders it with gritty greys and the sound of constant downpour outside.

As the film opens, a plumber comes in to check on one of the pipes in the man’s floor. He apparently discovers a problem and digs up the concrete floor, creating a hole looking down into the woman’s apartment. There is some tension created by the hole. The man occasionally pours things down it; the woman asks him to get it fixed. That’s as far as the drama and the plot go. The rest of the film is spent watching these two lonely people carrying on with their lonely lives in a lonely environment, hardly ever speaking.

The ending of the film provides a predictable, but very touching moment of catharsis. It isn’t quite enough, though. The ending is quit simple in theme and there isn’t much actual complexity to the main narrative for that theme to play off of. It’s all quite one-note. As I said, this would work much better as a short film.

Oh, but I am forgetting one thing! The musical numbers. Yes, that’s right, the musical numbers. The Hole is also a musical. The musical numbers actually do make the film more interesting. Between certain sections of the film, Tsai inserts these musical interludes, with the woman singing very American 40s-inspired tunes. The songs are actually pretty fun to listen to, and they do a really good job of framing the film, adding a greater sense of meaning for the characters.

Alas, the musical numbers can’t quite save it. The Hole is a good film, well made, with a great sense of theme, and even some depth. That doesn’t change the fact that it felt somewhat hollow, undone not by anything bad, but by length. For a film that’s only 90 minutes, it’s weird that it could still stand to lose about an hour.

6 responses to “Can’t Stop Marathon” Review #9: The Hole (1998, Tsai)

  1. 

    I haven’t seen this movie, but have been fortunate enough to discover a little bit of the director’s other projects, such as Vive L’Amour and The River. He does have a propensity for telling stories in an off-kilter sort of way with characters that are sometimes difficult to grasp. I think enjoys observing characters that are on the fringe of society, and therein lies the challenging aspect of his films: seeing life as we know it from totally different eyes.

    But whatev. What do I know…

    • 

      I didn’t really discuss it in my review, but that’s actually one of the aspects of the film I enjoyed. Though I thought that the film should have been shorter from a structural perspective, I was never bored by it, primarily because it was fascinating to simply observe these characters as the grapple with their daily lives.

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  4. 

    The thing I love about Tsai is that his long shots are never like all those slow cinema derivatives of Tarkovsky long shots in their poetic sweeping ghostly feel (I do like Tarkovsky long shots though). I don’t think you can conceive of Tsai Ming Liang ever doing a shot without a human character in it because he focuses on the extremely small human movements amidst the dull horrible disgusting sort of existence that goes on in his films. So while his shots are long I always found that they have a lot of action in them.

    Like in the Wayward Cloud there’s a shot that begins with a character sitting under a table smoking while you can see the others feet. Then it evolves into him stroking her feet and blowing smoke into it. Then she gets down on the floor with him. Then he places the cigarette between her toes and smokes with her feet. Then he lies down on the floor. In The Hole, to me one of the best shots was the woman trying to avoid droplets of water with a basin over her head on the toilet bowl.

    Anyway Tsai Ming Liang always essentially makes the same film and yet its because of his ability to capture these moments amidst grinding ennui that I never get tired of watching them.

    Also this is probably a thing you notice if you’re Chinese but the musical numbers (in both The Hole and The Wayward Cloud) are all old chinese pop classics dubbed on with the actors lip syncing. Stuff my father keeps playing around the house. The whole thing creates this horribly nostalgic mood that punctuates those moments in the film.

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