The Hole

English Title: The Hole

Country of Origin: China

Studio: Haut et Court

Director: Tsai Ming-liang

Producer(s): Cheng Su-Ming, Chiu Shun-Ching, Jiang Feng-Chyt

Screenplay: Tsai Ming-liang, Yang Ping-Ying

Cinematographer: Liao Peng-Jung

Art Director: Lee Pao-Lin

Editor: Hsiao Ju-Kuan

Runtime: 89 minutes

Genre: Drama, Fantasy

Year: 1997

Volume: Chinese


During the opening credits, offscreen voices give news reports of dire events in Taipei as 1999 draws to a close. An illness called Taiwan Fever is ravaging the population; quarantined areas have been marked off; and the government is pressuring those who refuse to leave their homes by cutting off garbage collection and threatening to stop the water supply. The story centres on two characters, known only as ‘the Man upstairs’ and ‘the Woman downstairs,’ who live in a run-down tenement. The Man works in a food shop but spends most of his time drinking, sleeping, and feeding a stray cat. The Woman lives in the apartment below him, where a hole in the ceiling allows the Man to spy on her and drop things into her living room. It is raining heavily throughout the film, and the story is interrupted several times by musical numbers performed by the two characters in the hallways of the building.


Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang made The Hole for a 1997 project called 2000 Seen by…, comprising eight international films dealing in various ways with the coming millennium. The story’s decisive event takes place in the first scene, when a plumber shows up at a young man’s apartment to find the source of a water leak, and then leaves without fixing the hole he has made in the floor. This hole, which opens onto a young woman’s apartment below, propels the movie’s slender plot and provides the key metaphor for its view of human relations, simultaneously linking and separating the two characters. At first the tensions between them grow steadily stronger: the Woman wants her privacy while the Man is a snoop and a slob, so ill-mannered that at one point he drunkenly vomits into her living room. Yet the hole also serves to draw them together, since it is the only thing their dull, unhappy lives have in common. 

The slow growth of their affection is symbolized by the fantasy song-and-dance routines they perform in the tenement’s dirty, dreary corridors. The music is taken from Hong Kong movies starring singer-actress Grace Chang, which Tsai enjoyed as a child. The first, ‘Calypso,’ is done by the Woman alone, but later the Man joins her. Each subsequent number has more dancers and glittery costumes than the last, until the one that ends the film, ‘I Don’t Care Who You Are,’ in which the Man and Woman simply gaze into each other’s eyes while moving in slow, rhythmic circles. Love has finally arrived. 

Although much bizarre humour arises from the film’s surrealistic premise and odd juxtapositions, it projects a dark vision of urban life on the eve of the twenty-first century. The incessant, torrential rain suggests that nature itself has lost its bearings, and the theme of illness grows increasingly grim as the story proceeds. Taiwan Fever is carried by cockroaches, we learn, and it induces cockroach-like behaviour in its victims, causing them to scuttle about like insects on the floor. The Woman comes down with this malady, and even before this her life appears to be drab and joyless, even when she is not searching doggedly for a plumber to fix the ever-present leak (still dripping away) or buying mountains of paper towels to sop up the water. Yet the end of the picture is hopeful to the point of transcendence, as the Man hoists the Woman through the hole like a benevolent god raising a righteous mortal to the heavens. It is a strange and wonderful moment, as is the slow dance that follows it. After this the screen displays Tsai’s words of tribute to the movie’s music: ‘In the year 2000, we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang’s songs to comfort us.’ 

The mood and tone of The Hole owe a great deal to the dilapidated building where all the action takes place. Tsai started the film with a different story in mind, but everything changed when he discovered this location: its similarity to a building he once lived in started new ideas and associations clicking in his mind, and his decision to make it the story’s sole milieu freed him from having to plan the movie’s structure in advance. The performances – especially that of Tsai’s favourite actor, Lee Kang-sheng, as the Man – also contribute strongly to the film’s uncanny power. At once a musical, a melodrama, a romance, and a science-fiction portrait of a dystopian future, The Hole is original and idiosyncratic even by Tsai’s lofty standards. Rarely has a film combined so many paradoxes and contradictions – pessimism and optimism, gracefulness and clumsiness, despair and hope – into such a unified, transfixing whole.

Author of this review: David Sterritt