“What is the essence of cinema?” is the question that haunts film critics and theorists for decades. In his book “What Cinema Is!”, film scholar Dudley Andrew believes that film is a conduit to bring the audience toward others’ lived experience. Following the idea that film should be an encounter with the world, Andrew argues that the film frame leads the audience to different spaces. A threshold “functions as a passage from one to the other [space].” While Andrew drew his inspiration from André Bazin’s writings, Malaysian-Taiwanese director Ming-Liang Tsai’s film “The Hole” illustrates Andrew’s thinking of film surprisingly well.
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“The Hole” is a hybrid of science fiction and musical. The film is set in 1999’s Taipei and a new epidemic, “Taiwan fever”, breaks out. Those infected by the disease will start to crawl like a cockroach and there seems to be no cure for the disease.
While Tsai sets the film in the near future, he doesn’t seem to care about the sci-fi details of the film. Instead, he focuses on one man (played by Kang-sheng Lee) and one woman (played by Kuei-mei Yang). They are neighbors in the film; the man lives upstairs from the woman. The film starts with an absurd situation. One day, a plumber walks into the man’s house and drills a hole in his floor to fix a water-leaking problem. However, the plumber never comes back to fix the hole, and the leaking continues till the end of the film. The leaking problem connects the man and the woman, and it seems like the woman is attracted to the man at first sight. We know this because Tsai constructs elaborate song and dance sequences for the woman character. These performances feature the woman dressing up glamorously and lip-syncing and dancing to Grace Chang’s pop songs. These songs express her feelings and fantasies. We never perceive the man’s fantasy, instead we see him playing with the hole in the floor (putting water or his foot into it) and changing his routines (peeing in the sink instead of the toilet to avoid water leaks into the woman’s apartment.) At the end of the film, the woman is infected by the “Taiwan Fever” virus. When she is lying on a pile of toilet paper, the man gives the woman a glass of water through the hole, and eventually lifts her up to his apartment through the hole. The film ends on the two dressing in formal attire and dancing to Grace Chang’s slow ballad.
All the song and dance numbers in the film are adapted from songs sung by Grace Chang, who was popular during the fifties. In fact, the film is dedicated to the singer. At the end of the film, we see a title card saying, “In the year 2000, we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang’s songs to comfort us.” At the lower right corner of the frame, the director signs his name and the year he made the film, 1997.
While this film could be read as Tsai’s nostalgic gesture toward the past, he rejects this interpretation of his works. In an interview he did with a Malaysian-Taiwanese film scholar Song-Yong Sing, Tsai says that in his movies, he is interested in showing how things he has used in the past still persist into the present. He is not interested in recreating the past; in contrast, he tries to show that the present consists of things both old and new. I would like to add that his films not only put things with different temporalities within the same frame, but also bring those songs, texts, movie stars and films from the past to the audience who sit in a theater watching his films. He makes the past present to us. It is also here that, I believe, Tsai’s film adds a wrinkle to Andrew’s argument about the different temporalities of cinema and television. Andrew argues that we have to experience film “at a temporal remove”, because it has to take time to film, develop, and screen the images to the audience. In contrast to film, television has the ability to broadcast live, which means that the audiences are watching the represented events unfold before their eyes. While events represented in films, always, have already happened before the audience watches them, Tsai’s “The Hole” shows us that cinema has the ability to present the contemporaneity of things from the past and present. By using Grace Chang’s songs as the basis of the female character’s imaginary worlds in a sci-fi setting, the audience has to think about the relationships between these old pop songs and the future world inhabited by these characters. This means that the audience has to experience Chang’s songs in a new way.
Tsai’s film echoes Andrew’s thinking about film at another level. Andrew argues that one of cinema’s missions is to connect the audience with something that is unfamiliar to them. Cinema is the site where the self meets the other. Following this idea, Andrew argues that we should think about the film frame as threshold, which leads the audience to different spaces. Tsai’s film is precisely about how people can move across spaces and connect with others. The second to last scene in the film illustrates this point well. We see the woman is very sick and lying on piles of toilet paper. Then, a hand holding a glass of water reaches into the frame from the top. The woman receives the glass and drinks the water. The man’s hand reaches down again. The woman grabs the hand and the man pulls her up to his apartment. Then, the film cuts to the next scene, in which the two are dancing to Grace Chang’s music.
Before this scene, the song and dance numbers were clearly the woman’s imagination. In fact, the man only appears once in the woman’s imaginary song and dance sequence, which is motivated by the woman’s pensive face. In the sequence, the man is running away from the woman’s pursuit, while the woman is lip syncing to the song “I want your love”. However, we cannot be sure who motivates the last dance sequence. In fact, since it is the man who pulls the woman up, it is possible to read the last scene as the man now shares the woman’s imaginary universe.
The hole in this scene functions like Andrew’s threshold. It connects two spaces and the two people. The threshold not only changes the man’s life in the physical world, but also helps him move into the woman’s imaginary world. If, as Andrew has pointed out, that “In the Mood for Love” dramatizes the nostalgic feeling of cinephilia, “The Hole” dramatizes the idea that a film frame is a threshold, which brings us to other places.
While Tsai may not have read Andrew’s earlier writings on Bazin, their love for the French New Wave, especially Truffaut’s “400 Blows”, might explain the similarity between their thinking about cinema. Andrew’s cinema is just like the hole in Tsai’s film, it helps us move away from our own world, and move into others’ imaginary worlds.