Deadpan, surreal and pandemically prophetic, Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Hole (Dong)” didn’t make much of a splash, globally, when it premiered in 1999. A droll fantasy-musical about loneliness, plumbing and a virus spread by cockroaches who makes people act like cockroaches, it’s nothing if not strange.
But here it is, earning NY and LA virtual premieres because whatever we avoided in the film’s fictional version of New Year’s Eve, 2000, it’s biting us on the butt right now.
A cascade of news reports, only heard/never seen, set up the problem. There’s a new “Taiwan Virus,” and evacuations have been ordered in assorted hotspots. But the residents of this one run-down apartment building aren’t complying.
The Man Upstairs (Lee Kang Sheng) lives in 804, just lying around in his untidy whiteys smoking when he isn’t running his ground-floor grocery stall. He’s listened to the many news reports and apparently decided to ignore them.
But the pounding at his door isn’t an eviction or government-ordered evacuation. It’s a plumber. There’s a leak downstairs. Could he take a look?
Next thing we know, he’s knocked a hole in the floor, fixed nothing, and left. Yeah, it happens there, too. And as big a mess and inconvenience as it is for The Man Upstairs, for The Woman Downstairs, it’s a nightmare.
She (Yang Kuei-Mei) has water issues. The wallpaper is peeling, puddles are everywhere. You prepare for a pandemic — she has stacks and stacks of wet wipes — and then THIS happens. Perpetual rain outside, drips everywhere inside, especially when the fellow in 804 uses the toilet. Her water? On and off.
“The Hole” is about their solitary efforts to cope with this nightmare of plumbing, pandemic and near solitude.
He spies on her through the hole on his floor, and once even vomits through the hole. She blasts him with bug spray, barges in on him in his market stall and demands that he stick around for the plumber, a plumber she can never land an appointment with.
“Do you think you’re the only plumber around here?” she yells into the phone (in Chinese with English subtitles). We get a feeling she’s just glad to have a conversation with somebody. Anybody.
He, at least, has a cat he feeds downstairs at his market.
And every so often, our story is interrupted for a little Chinese lip-synching as The Lady Downstairs turns up in a decorated hallway, or stage-set elevator, dressed up in wig, heels, gloves and cheongsam, putting on a show.
Sometimes she has backup lip-synching singers. Sometimes, The Man Upstairs figure into the fantasy.
Is it hers, or his?
There’s a soundtrack mostly filled with news reports, a rising level of frustration and a growing sense of despair as these two disconnected people try to cope with miseries that are just the cherry on top of their slice of lonely cake.
Are there worse fates than succumbing to a disease that makes you skitter across the floor like a roach? Probably.
Tsai Ming-liang (“Rebels of the Neon God,” “What Time is it There?”) suggests that isolation is one of those fates. And he takes his sweet time making that simple point, creating a mesmerizing and deliberate if never-quite-poignant fairytale allegory about the hole in modern lives.
“The Hole” goes down easily, even if we’re distracted by exactly where The Woman Downstairs found all those lovely, coveted wipes.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Yang Kuei-Mei, Lee Kang Sheng
Credits: Directed by Tsai Ming-liang, script by Tsai Ming-liang,Yang Pi-ying. A Big World Pictures release.
Running time: 1:30