The Hole: an ultimately unsatisfying film about isolation, alienation and yearning for connection

Tsai Ming-liang, “The Hole / Dong” (1998)

Its theme of yearning for connection and hope in a dystopian urban environment of the near future, where an extraordinary social crisis has led to extreme government action that isolates and alienates individuals, is rather too obvious so “The Hole” opts for an idiosyncratic presentation combining elements of moody post-apocalyptic science fiction, nostalgic musical fantasy that pays homage to 1950s Hong Kong singer Grace Chang and a minimalist plot relying heavily on the talents of its two main actors Yang Kuei-mei (as the Woman) and Lee Kang-sheng (as the Man) to supply the action, the dancing, the skimpy dialogue, the emotion and the comedy. While the slow plot may disappoint viewers and skirts quite close to boredom, its very minimalism may provoke a lot of discussion as to whether “The Hole” can be regarded as a depressive dystopian picture, a satire on modern society where everyone at once wants to be alone yet secretly yearns for connection or a bizarre musical comedy escapade.

Around the year 2000, Taiwan is hit by a mystery viral plague spread by cockroaches that apparently causes people to behave like cockroaches and eventually drives them insane and kills them. The government evacuates healthy people to quarantine camps but some choose to stay in the city and are corralled into apartment blocks. In one such apartment block live two unnamed people, the Man who occupies one flat and the Woman who lives in the flat below his. Constant pouring rain causes problems in the block: a plumber enters the Man’s flat to find the cause of a leak and digs out a hole in the Man’s living room floor. He leaves the hole there without apparently making a future date to return to fix it. The Woman, trying to cope with water leaking from various points throughout her flat, is unimpressed with the hole appearing in her ceiling. The hole becomes the catalyst for the characters to make contact with each other by assuming various roles: initially it is the avenue by which they become aware of each other, leading to fantasies of connection and possible romance (as demonstrated in the musical numbers); it is also the source of their frustration with each other, as the plumber fails to return to finish his job and the noises that the Man makes upstairs annoy the Woman; the hole becomes the means by which the Man becomes aware of the Woman being potentially infected by the virus; and in its last manifestation it is a beacon of hope and optimism.

The pace is slow with little happening until the last few moments so much viewer attention is directed to the isolating and isolated dank and dark concrete-jungle environment in which the characters live. The Man runs a food store that receives incredibly few customers save for an elderly gent whose favourite brands no longer exist and the Woman spends all her time mopping her floor, ripping wet wallpaper off her walls and eating instant noodles: how totally atomised their lives must be when all they can look forward to each day is emptiness and silence! The cinematography relies on long take after long take that emphasises the characters’ total isolation and alienation. Even the bright and colourful musical numbers, fantasy though they are, with agile male dancers in tuxedoes and a trio of back-up doo-wop girl singers, take place in the apartment block’s elevator, stairways and gangways, and in one flat, as though to suggest that, no matter how dreary people’s lives may be, they can still take refuge in their imaginations and that refuge may be closer to reality than they realise.

While there’s much to commend the film, its central characters remain flat due to the slow and sparse narrative, which permits little character development. The resolution to the characters’ problems seems overburdened with visual allusion (even though viewers can see it coming from a mile away) and ends in a sentimental music number. This is the kind of slightly experimental art film that you see once but no more than that. The film’s examination of the human condition comes across as rather superficial, a bit stereotyped and ultimately unsatisfying. Passively accepting a government restriction that forces the film’s characters to endure isolated lives without meaning or hope of change, renewal or freedom, and to retreat instead into an endlessly repeating fantasy world, seems to be the film’s main message; if rebellion occurs, it is only by accidental chance.

Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock ill at ease with musical comedy of Johann Strauss II

Alfred Hitchcock, “Waltzes from Vienna” (1934)

What’s this? – a musical comedy about Johann Strauss II and his waltz “The Blue Danube” by Alfred Hitchcock? The Master of Suspense made this film during his lean early-1930’s period when he had more failures than successes working in different film genres and was seriously doubting his ability as a director. Some of that self-doubt is apparent in the movie itself: it revolves around  Johann Strauss II (Esmond Knight) aka Schani who’s torn between his love for a young woman Rasi (Jessie Matthews) and his desire to write and conduct music. The young woman demands that he give up his music and follow her in her father’s tearoom / bakery business which the young man loathes and has no aptitude for. Add to that mix the young man’s father (Edmund Gwenn) who disdains his son’s efforts at writing music as he secretly fears being upstaged. If that’s not enough headache for you, there’s a wily Countess (Fay Compton) who has designs on the young man under the pretence of encouraging him in his musical ambitions. Poor Schani, wanting to please everyone at once and to follow his true path, can’t make up his mind between the women and their demands, and the love triangle of Schani, Rasi and the Countess provides the background and structure against which Schani casually coughs out his signature work.

At least Hitchcock preserved some semblance of reality in this slapstick farce: since the emphasis is on how Schani created his major work, the ever-present love triangle is allowed to continue indefinitely and the coda is suitably ambiguous if unsatisfactory for musical comedy audiences at the time. Other Hitchcock touches are present insofar as the director was able to sneak them in: a character falls down a staircase for laughs and early in the film Schani stumbles through a dress shop and meets several young ladies in various states of undress. Though Matthews only sings one song – the movie was supposed to be a showcase for her singing talent – her character is a spirited filly determined to wrest Schani away from the Countess even if her own jealousy destroys him. The Countess Helga von Stahl herself, married to buffoonish Prince Gustav (Frank Vosper) who features in the film for laughs, seems a benevolent mentor and patron but her gracious and refined approach masks her passion for Schani. Here are two women who are doubles of each other, neither of them a complete angel or devil but a mixture of the two and having the power to crush Schani in some way: a clever Hitchcockian device to insert into an otherwise lightweight comedy though the 1930’s parameters of the genre and the plot being a ficititious soap opera about a real person don’t permit the conflict to play out fully in the movie. The only assurance viewers have is that whichever woman Schani chooses beyond the confines of the movie, he will lose an essential part of himself and the woman will be dissatisfied with the husk that remains. Matthews and Compton play their respective roles as twins well but in different ways; in acting skill, Compton wins out over Matthews as the languid Hitchcockian-blonde lady who nurses unfulfilled desires.

Knight and Matthews lack spark in their scenes together and Knight seems wooden in a role that calls for hesitancy, indecisiveness and maybe not a little stiffness. As for the support, Gwenn is a dark, almost malevolent figure (something of Hitchcock’s fear of male-dominated authority comes into the character) while other male-authority figures that appear are comics who treat Schani disdainfully: Prince Gustav, otherwise an out-and-out clown, treats Schani as a hat-stand almost violently and Rasi’s dad never accepts his potential son-in-law as heir to his business. The message is clear: as an artist, Schani will always be an outsider at whichever level of society he tries to enter. Interestingly, only women can allow him that access.

The slapstick seems forced and predictable and viewers may get the impression that Hitchcock was uncomfortable using it. The real value the film offers lies in its technical proficiency: “Waltzes …” just about revels in deep focus shots, long panning shots – there’s one outstanding left-to-right panning shot of a festival in the last third of the movie – and a shot featuring a zoom effect used on the Countess as she wraps up her copy of Schani’s “The Blue Danube” score; the shot quiickly morphs into a shot of Rasi wrapping her copy of the score, emphasising Rasi and the Countess as polarised twins. Close-ups of Rasi that stress her fresh-faced beauty are frequent and in the festival scenes, there are many close-ups of the musicians playing their instruments and of the instruments themselves that stress repetition and harmonisation. The voyeuristc camera gets a good workout: in one scene, the camera glides slowly from left to right around a candelabra, then gradually traces a semi-circle and draws close to Schani at the piano and the Countess behind him performing a song. The sets are minimal due to a low budget but are unintnentionally effective as their spareness throws the focus onto the actors.

“Waltzes …” might have worked better if the plot had included some (if not a complete) resolution of the love triangle rather than leaving it open and continuous, and wit and situation comedy substituted for slapstick and farce. There are dark elements in the love triangle and Schani’s relationship with his father that could have been teased up more. The stingy budget allocated to the move meant that only one song and various repetitions of “The Blue Danube” appear and this detracts from the movie in many ways: songs in musicals often express a character’s feelings and motivations and these are where darker psychological aspects to Rasi and the Countess could have been worked in. Fear, jealousy, father-son relationships and the destructive power of romantic love become significant themes under Hitchcock’s direction and could have been potential sources of tension and suspense that might add substance to the fluffy plot.