Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Faces of Tsai Ming-liang: The Hole

Taiwan Y2K: It’s not exactly the end of the world, but nobody feels fine. The government has established wide quarantine areas following the outbreak of the so-called “Taiwan Fever.” The water is unsafe, the weather is awful, and the few holdouts refusing to evacuate their old apartments are profoundly lonely. Such is Taiwan in the year 2000 as envisioned by Tsai Ming-liang in his 1997 film, The Hole, which screens at the Asia Society as part of their Faces of Tsai Ming-liang retrospective series.

In addition to the scarcity of potable water and basic sanitation, an unnamed woman is plagued by a series of persistent leaks flowing down into her apartment. When a plumber investigates, he leaves a rather conspicuous hole in the middle of her ceiling, which one of her last remaining neighbors quickly vomits into. Evidently, it is hard to find good help in the Hot Zone.

The man upstairs and the woman downstairs hardly ever talk, despite being the nearly the last people left in the neighborhood. He runs a convenience store located in what appears to be a self-storage locker, where he feeds a stray cat and frequently gets drunk. She stockpiles toilet paper, battling like Sisyphus against the torrential leaks. Indeed, life is grim for the downstairs woman, and getting steadily worse. However, there is temporary respite in Tsai’s dark, dank world that comes through the power of fantasy and the music of Grace Chang.

Born on the Mainland, Hong Kong actress and singer Chang had a vocal style that should please fans of Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee. Her songs, “Oh, Calypso,” “Dragon Lady,” “I Want Your Love,” “Achoo Cha-Cha,” and “I Don’t Care Who You Are” accompany the sweetly surreal dance numbers featuring the woman upstairs, sometimes fronting a company of glamorous ladies in sequined evening dresses. Call the exuberant choreography and lip-synching bizarre or even goofy, but it comes as a welcome relief, leavening the despair of Tsai’s gloomy vision of the future. They also happen to be really swinging pop songs.

Hole reunites Yang Kuei-Mei and Lee Kang-sheng from Vive L’Amour as the woman downstairs and her upstairs neighbor. Once again, the audience sees more than enough of Lee in his tighty-whities, but he is quite compelling as the socially awkward man. Still, Yang steals the show again, both as the emotionally exhausted woman downstairs and as the alluring chanteuse in the musical interludes.

Originally commissioned for French television’s 2000: As Seen By, a series of short films inspired by the then impending turn of the Millennium, the feature length Hole paints a dreary picture of the future, yet it ends on a transcendently optimistic note. Following a strikingly framed conclusion, Tsai’s end titles declare: “In the year 2000, we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang’s songs to comfort us,” which beautifully encapsulates the spirit of the film. Arguably more accessible to general audiences than his award-winning Vive, due to its futuristic themes and wild musical sequences, the strange and compelling Hole screens at the Asia Society on Saturday (11/21), the final day of their ongoing Tsai retrospective.