Holed on

You'll never figure it out, but you'll unaccountably like it.

THE HOLE SHOWS nothing of Taiwan but the inside of a huge industrial apartment complex, upon which rain falls relentlessly,day and night—probably not an image the country's tourism board wants to cultivate, but one that anyone who survived the past Seattle winter can identify with. Despite its enormous size, the building seems virtually empty; it encompasses grocery stalls as well as small, oppressive living spaces, but hardly any scene in the movie includes more than one or two people. The only voice from the outside comes from the radio, which routinely reports about a strange new disease that drives people to behave like cockroaches: crawling in corners and holes, avoiding light, and so on. The whole scenario is claustrophobic to the point of hallucination, so it's almost no surprise when the bleak circumstances are interrupted by bright, colorful musical numbers set to the songs of Grace Chang, an Asian chanteuse who sounds as if she comes from the 1950s or early '60s.

The Hole

directed by Tsai Ming Liang

plays July 16-22 at the Grand Illusion

There's very little story. A young woman's apartment is repeatedly flooded. While investigating the source, a plumber tears a small hole into the concrete separating her apartment from the one directly above, where a young man lives. In America, this could be the setup for a romantic comedy; for director Tsai Ming Liang (whose previous films Vive L'Amour and The River have appeared at the Seattle International Film Festival, as did The Hole), it's an opportunity for brittle, almost Samuel Beckett-like humor. Entire scenes consist of the young woman peeling sodden wallpaper from her walls, or objects slowly bobbing in the shallow water surrounding her bed while she fitfully tries to sleep. The movie doesn't exactly encourage you to laugh—the director seems to feel that that's a personal decision only you can make—but it does invite you to consider laughter as an optional response.

At regular intervals, however, the cold cement background of the apartment complex becomes the backdrop for elaborate dance fantasies in which the young woman lip-synchs to Asian big-band songs that sound as if they're backed up by Glenn Miller in Las Vegas. All the songs have the surreal whimsy of American pop culture filtered through an Asian sensibility; the only title I recall is "The Achoo Cha-Cha," the chorus of which involves much sneezing and cheerful gesundheits. The wet, gray setting only heightens the dislocated romantic giddiness of these songs.

At one point, the young man decides to widen the hole; it's not clear whether this is due to boredom, hostility, or the kind of stress that drives rats in cages to attack each other with their teeth and claws. This comes near the end, though it would be misleading to describe it as any kind of climax; all he ultimately does is stick his leg down the hole and swing it to and fro a bit.

The Hole is part of the "2000 Seen By . . ." series screening at the Grand Illusion, for which a French television company invited seven directors from around the world to make films about the millennium. In an interview, Tsai Ming Liang said, "I have no optimistic thoughts about the future." But the sight of a human leg dangling from the ceiling doesn't induce despair; in fact, by the end of The Hole I was—well, not exactly cheerful, but sort of serene, for some reason. That, at least, was the personal decision I came to.

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