Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hole (Tsai Ming-liang)

Excerpt from my piece on the 1999 Hong Kong International Film Festival 

The Happiness of idiots, the dreamlife of angels 

Tsai Ming-Liang’s The Hole is superb, worlds away from Ang Lee’s light, melancholic comedies; he’s closer to the heavygoing style of Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-Hsien--slow pacing, deadpan acting, heavily philosophized filmmaking--yet somehow his film glows with the excitement of a bold and truly speculative imagination. 

The film is set in Taiwan seven days into the next millenium: it hasn’t stopped raining and a new virus is going around, causing people to crawl and act like cockroaches. A man living in an apartment above a woman accidentally has a hole dug into his floor, and the rainwater drips through down to the woman’s room--opening up possible contact between the two people, viral and otherwise. 

The Hole is a brew of references--the scuttling from Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” the empty hallways and abandoned buildings from J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise. The image of a man and a woman alone and curious about each other in an enormous emptiness feels like Buster Keaton’s The Navigator--and in fact the deadpan slapstick recalls Keaton’s own imperturbable style. 

But the artist most movingly and surprisingly evoked is Dennis Potter, who obsessed over the pop songs of the ‘30s and ‘40s (Tsai's own obsession are the ‘50s Cantonese pop tunes of Grace Chang). Both use songs to comment on the narrative, provide color and variety; both brew a potent mix of vulgar sentiment, poignant nostalgia, coolly sardonic distance. The Hole is by turns futuristic parable, surreal comedy, ironic musical, touching love story, easily the most outstanding, outrĂ©, outrageous film I saw in the festival. 

First published in Businessworld April 1999 

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