Strange Symptoms

Boredom, frustration and loneliness in Tsai Ming-liang’s 1998 film ‘The Hole’

Tsai Ming-liang, The Hole, 1998, film still.

Hsiao Kang forces his toes, then his foot, then his calf, then his thigh through a hole in the floor. He lifts and stretches his free leg back, presses his hands into the carpet and puts his weight onto his two arms. His leg has been swallowed and transported. A woman occupies the apartment below. The leg dangles from her ceiling, limp, pointless. She misses it as she walks from her bedroom to her bathroom. It swings back and forth, gaining a crude self-assurance before retreating slowly up and out of the hole.   

Tsai Ming-liang’s 1998 The Hole is set just before the turn of the 21st century. Taiwan has been hit by a disease giving humans cockroach-like habits. Affected humans crawl around seeking dark places to hide. Only a few people choose to remain in a dilapidating and disease-ridden building. One day, a plumber, checking some pipes, drills a hole through Hsiao’s apartment floor, creating an opening into the woman’s apartment below.

The Hole is a relentlessly realistic portrayal of boredom, frustration and loneliness. There is minimal dialogue, much of the sound comes from the incessant pouring rain and a lot of the film is devoted to lone residents’ slow-moving household tasks. The image above is from the film’s closing sequence. In an uncomfortably moving display, a progressively lonely and ‘cabin-fevered’ Hsiao ends up putting his leg through the hole into the woman’s ceiling (this is followed a few minutes later by him breaking down in tears and aimlessly hammering on the floor around the hole). What made this scene so sharply emblazoned in my mind was my complete understanding of and empathy for Hsiao as he desperately commits this bizarre and futile act for human intimacy. 

Main image: Tsai Ming-Liang, The Hole, 1998, film still. Courtesy: Haut et Court 

Tabitha Steinberg is a writer, curator and artist based in London, UK. She is co-founder of 650mAh, a project space located in MIST Vape Shop in Hove, UK

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