23 November 2009

The Hole.

What's alluring (what's revolting?) about romantic comedies is their emphasis on possibility and fate, chance occurrence, and romantic destiny; the films run on dream currents, idealistic wiring; they propose the existence of a tender, passionate architect who manages the lives of romantic hopefuls, and constructs future events that bring together compatible and needy lovers. Their need is the desire for something beyond the quotidian, separate from the individual self and external to the standard. Their narratives seek out the special, intangible dimensions of love.

Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole is titled after this need, and covers basically the trajectory of a romantic comedy. It begins with a television reporter commenting on the outbreak of an epidemic that transforms people into scurrying cockroach-like scavengers of darkness and solitude; and from this announcement (over white text credits on a black screen), the film opens onto the apartment of Hsiao Kang. Kang is the Typical Romantic Lead: the disorganized bachelor riddled with bad habits and single-male tendencies. We first see him asleep on a couch late-morning, a mess in front of him, clothed in tight white underwear. He opens the door, dressed as such, for a plumber. The plumber, in this movie, is destiny incarnate.

The literal hole the plumber leaves in Kang's floor is the first visual motif established in the film. Much of the romantic development relies on the audience interpreting these visual motifs and applying them, projecting them, onto the protagonists. This is Ming-Liang's forte as a filmmaker, his visual starkness and accompanying acumen over the domain of symbolism. I don't know if anyone has counted the total number of spoken lines in his first eight films, but hyperbolically I imagine the number is something like 20-25. He's a true filmmaker: he builds and sorts his characters with visual cues and photographic tension.

The woman and Kang are indifferent to the Taiwanese pandemic, and though I'm not knowledgeable about the specific value of this metaphor to the Taiwanese or its exclusive properties within the culture, the idea is nevertheless universal: she and Kang refuse to become a part of the sickness, or to even invest fear in the sickness. Their lives are free of the prevailing disease, and this is why they will stay in their apartments, and this is what will allow their love to grow.

Part of the genius, absolute genius, of the film is this encompassing doomsday metaphor. It casts deep shadows over the love affair, and somehow nears a trueness absent from most romantic comedies, which are often filled with similarly lovable characters, often falling in love themselves (reminder: I'd like to write a 100 relationship romantic comedy. It'd be a cinch. One true one? Jeeesus that's tough). The Hole seems to say that a love affair will work not because of the rest of the world but in spite of the rest of the world. It paints the treasure of love as truly unique and truly nourishing.

Love approaches from the distance, and Ming-Liang portrays the ascending romance through a series of endearing musical sequences (Ming-Liang pays direct tribute to the songs of Grace Chang at the end of the film). These daydream music numbers interrupt the ceaselessly rain-drenched lives of the protagonists; they're staged within the apartment complex the film is set. Gorgeous people in beautiful clothes under ravishing light and entrancing choreography dance and sing amid concrete stair cases, upper-level banisters, and mostly unadorned environments. Again the point: they are their escape. Within themselves they can escape where they are, and who they are environmentally forced to be. This is a key difference between The Hole and some other romantic comedies: no one in the film is forced to become another person in order to obtain the person they love. The collision of chance and romance is a matter of patience, obstinacy, and honesty.

Kang widens the hole in the ground; she dreams beneath him. The bizarre, the dreary, and the ordinary blend with romantic energy. Kang pisses in a sink, the woman has a dream telephone conversation with Kang while rubbing t.p. over her body: somehow these things add up, somehow Ming-Liang makes them really count. He imbues not just the everyday with the idea of love, but even the tragic, even the end-of-the-world atmosphere.

I won't tell you how it ends. I'll tell you what it meant to me: it meant so much. It's common for a romantic comedy to make you love certain ideas, and it's very rare for a romantic comedy to make you fall for the movie itself. The film has Eisenstein's visual specificity, Wai's romantic intensity, and a modern filmmaker's sense of the everyday. Film as dreamweaving? Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole. A woman in a white-colored air-filtering mask should never mean the same again.

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