A still from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Hole.”

The Taiwanese film that predicted our quarantine nightmare

May 19, 2020

In his 1998 film ‘The Hole,’ Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang offers an eerily prescient picture of our social isolation and need for human connection in an age of pandemics.

Two decades ago, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang made a grimly accurate portrait of our current quarantine dread.

In his 1998 film The Hole, Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, has become a desolate, disease-ridden place from which most residents have already evacuated.

But a few hold out in their modest apartments, defying government orders and dumping garbage out of their windows, to avoid contracting a fearsome “Taiwan virus” that causes victims to fear sunlight and crawl on all fours like cockroaches.

A still from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Hole.”
A still from Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Hole.” / Photo: Fox Lorber

The film follows one of these last holdouts, Hsiao-kang (played by Tsai’s muse Lee Kang-sheng), who scrapes together a living by selling food to whatever customers he can attract to his makeshift stall.

(Read more: Remembering Leslie Cheung’s weirdest film and what it says about Hong Kong identity)

When a plumbing accident opens a large hole in the floor of his apartment, he encounters his daydreaming downstairs neighbor (played by Yang Kuei-mei), and the pair gradually begin to form a tacit bond.

Viewed from the present, the film appears remarkably prescient about both the 2003 SARS outbreak and unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

Viewed from the present, the film appears remarkably prescient about both the 2003 SARS outbreak and unfolding coronavirus pandemic, with its mysterious fevers, widespread isolation, and a world on lockdown. 

Foreshadowing our present quarantine dread

While it might seem dated today to speak of a “Taiwan virus” given how its government has handled the current outbreak much better than in Tsai’s fictionalized telling, his film still invites audiences to consider just how much remains the same.

In interviews conducted around the time of the film’s release, the director frequently links the rise of new diseases such as AIDS and bird flu to capitalism.

In interviews conducted around the time of the film’s release, the director frequently links the rise of new diseases such as AIDS and bird flu to capitalism.

His remarks foreshadow the slew of scientific and political voices today that argue transnational commerce, travel, and development have exposed humans to new pathogens and allowed them to spread at rapid rates.

Director Tsai Ming-liang, right, with actor Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in all of Tsai’s feature films.
Director Tsai Ming-liang, right, with actor Lee Kang-sheng, who has appeared in all of Tsai’s feature films. / Photo: Xiaomei Chen/SCMP

In The Hole, as in his wider body of work, Tsai tackles the global phenomena of loneliness, longing, and vulnerability on an intimate, human scale. Contagion serves as both a powerful metaphor for human longing and isolation, and an index of our social and scientific realities.

(Read more: ‘Suk Suk’ director on making a film about Hong Kong’s closeted gay grandpas)

In one scene, the downstairs neighbor scampers on all fours toward a toilet-paper fortress that she has built in her dimly lit apartment as water leaks in from all sides from a torrential downpour.

For a moment, it’s tempting to agree that in such circumstances, all that’s left to do is hide amid stockpiled tissue towers and wait.

A glimmer of hope

Thankfully, The Hole doesn’t leave viewers with this bleak picture of atomized individuals cowering in their own apartments. It is ultimately about the gradual erosion—literally—of the walls that divide us.

The film’s otherwise grim tone and discomfiting silences—the sound of rain and bodily functions like eating and drinking make up most of the soundtrack—are periodically interrupted by imagined musical interludes, where Hsiao-kang and the unnamed woman dance together to the tune of Hong Kong singer Grace Chang’s postwar Cantonese and Mandarin ballads.

(Read more: Chinese jazz is hot again thanks to ‘Crazy Rich Asians’)

These musical daydreams remind that just below these residents’ cold exteriors lie inner worlds, lingering hope, and a deep need for connection with the equally lonely people around them. Far from just nostalgic balms, the sweetly romantic ballads, which the Malaysian-born director grew up with, also serve as counterpoints to what society has become.

In an age of social distancing, these scenes remind us that, as Tsai puts it, “humans aren’t stones.”

In the film’s final sequence, Hsiao-kang reaches below and lifts his neighbor from her dark, damp surroundings to the brightly lit room above, dreams and reality colliding in a final dance number. In an age of social distancing, these scenes remind us that, as Tsai puts it, “humans aren’t stones.”

If anything, quarantine has made many people more, not less, aware of this need for connection. It has alerted people to the alarming ordinariness of isolation in our fast-paced, work-driven lives.

But, as The Hole affirms, the role of fantasy is to remind us that things can be different. Like that nameless daydreamer, we too may yet make it out to the other side.

CoronavirusFilmTaiwan