Tsai Ming Liang's 1998 film The Hole is must-watch viewing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic

Tsai Ming-Liang's Cannes award-winning film The Hole transcends the generic limitations of thrillers which makes use of pandemics. It makes us rethink our relationship to the environment and our reaction to the COVID-19 crisis.

Indranil Bhattacharya March 13, 2020 11:02:45 IST
Tsai Ming Liang's 1998 film The Hole is must-watch viewing during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic
  • Tsai Ming-Liang's Cannes award-winning film The Hole transcends the generic limitations of thrillers which makes use of pandemics.

  • It makes us rethink our relationship to the environment and our reaction to the COVID-19 crisis.

In the 1998 edition of the Cannes Film Festival, the Taiwanese film The Hole directed by Tsai Ming-Liang was nominated for Palme D’or but ended up winning the FIPRESCI (film critics’ prize). The film depicts Taipei, as a dark, brooding city, in the throes of a lethal virus. Continuous rain, leaking water pipes, flooded apartments, deserted streets, and alienated citizens form the backdrop of The Hole.

A plumber comes to fix a leakage in a tiny apartment, inhabited by a self-quarantined young man (“the upper-floor man”). Instead of fixing the leak, the plumber leaves a huge, gaping hole in the floor of the flat. It is this ‘hole’ through which our secluded young protagonist manages to connect with his female neighbour, a woman who appears sick and is obsessively hoarding toilet papers. It is not exactly a romantic connection. Tsai Ming-Liang creates a complex, layered film, which draws from the science fiction and horror genres, but takes viewers into a disturbing psychological journey.

The fear of pandemics has been a popular trope deployed by filmmakers who work within the mainstream genre of thrillers and horror movies.

Streaming platforms, in the recent past, have seen a massive surge in people watching or at least searching for films on pandemics. The plots and themes of most of these films are created along predictable lines: Viruses leak out from secret labs developing biological weapons, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting humans; humans behave like sub-human creatures, or even worse, become flesh-eating zombies; the extermination of the virus could also imply the end of the human species. The list is not exhaustive and new variants are invented every day. Being a sub-genre of thrillers, this “dystopic” category of films exploit our persistent fears of an apocalyptic end of the human race. The end could be precipitated by a giant meteor, hostile aliens, a climate catastrophe, or a medical crisis unleashed by a microscopic organism, unwittingly created or transmitted by humans.

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Stills from Tsai Ming Liang's The Hole (1998)

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Tsai Ming-Liang was neither making a realistic film about a pandemic or a medical thriller such as the film Outbreak (1995). As the virus spreads in Tsai Ming-Liang’s film, men and women demonstrate roach-like behaviour. Like insects, they try to avoid light and crawl into holes. Meanwhile, the protagonist and his neighbour have strange encounters in passages, the staircases, the basement of the apartment. These encounters often take the form of kitschy song-and-dance scenes, where the woman (“the downstairs neighbour”), dressed in fancy costumes, lip-syncs to pop songs by Grace Cheung — a musical celebrity in Taiwan. It is left to the viewers whether to interpret these songs as dreams or as fantasy, or as Brechtian interruptions intended to rupture the illusion of reality. There are references to real civic and environmental issues in Taipei in the film — including a fleeting reference to the infamous “Taiwan fever”, a dangerous form of dengue. The film flits between parallel registers of realism, the allegorical, the fantastical and the didactic. In terms of style, too, The Hole adopts slow, long-duration shots, which dwell on the urban spaces, making them equally important as what the characters do in the film. Within the minimal narrative, the characters operate both as individuals, as well as types. Their behaviour evokes the alienation, the anxieties and the obsessions of men and women, living in the constant fear of contagion and death. There has been a perception that The Hole was Tsai-Ming Liang’s way of representing the “Y2K anxieties” that came with the demise of the 20th century and the dawn of the new millennium.

Compared to standard pandemic films, The Hole is an insightful and cerebral work, which transcends the limitations of the genre. It does not seek to exploit the fears of people. Rather, it makes us aware of the absurdities of the situation which pervade during pandemics when people behave irrationally, out of fear of death and the threat of alienation. It makes us rethink our civic and environmental responsibilities and reflect on the various ways in which society, governments and the media are reacting to the global crisis.

Dr Indranil Bhattacharya is professor — Screen Studies and Research at FTII

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