Presentation at Decadence/Decay, Art History Conference at Carleton University, March 9-10, 2013
There are seven days left before the new millennium. An epidemic has broken out in one of Taipei’s neighbourhoods; a virus with initial flu-like symptoms eventually transforms the behaviour of those affected into something like a cockroach. Additionally in Taipei, there seems to be a non-stop torrential downpour. The government has cancelled garbage collection and trash is casually tossed into the street; they have also suggested residents leave the area. The Water Company, we also learn through radio announcements at the beginning of the film, will turn off the water at midnight, January 1st, 2000. This story, to say the least, is a narrative of ruin, and many of Tsai’s admirers paint him as a pessimist and cynic because of it; the director himself says this film is sad and full of despair – although he is very open to interpretation, suggesting there is neither pessimism nor optimism.
An apartment complex perhaps in the middle of this epidemic seems to be mostly evacuated, and therefore a non-place, save two tenants – an unnamed young man (Lee Kang-sheng) and an unnamed middle-aged woman (Yang Kuei-mei) – who live one atop the other. The man upstairs has little to do but eat, sleep, piss, and open his underground shop. The woman seems to have no pre-occupations except eating, sleeping, pissing, and mopping the floor and walls which are perpetually leaking. And of course, both watch TV. This flood in her apartment, in a very strange way, brings the two characters together. The drip seems to be coming from a pipe located in the man’s floor, an absurd conclusion because no pipe would drench an apartment like that, and so, a plumber arrives in the first scene to drill a hole to access and hopefully fix the problem. Here we have the title. Two people who have no contact even in the most catastrophic time are brought together by this absurd hollow, connecting their respective apartments, and therefore their lives.
The domesticity that features so prominently in all of his films is enhanced by the repeated and altered use of the same apartment space. Few other films rival the sense of space in The Hole: we know where each object and each room is in relation to the others; how the man sleeps and eats and how the woman cleans and uses the bathroom. There is access to the private realm, things we are not supposed to see, or would really want to. However, providing this access we see the tragedy of solitary existence as both characters operate on the same mundane daily routine. But with the hole in the floor this loneliness is thwarted. The catastrophe has brought them together in a sense, and the dilapidated apartments, in their malfunction and decrepitude, allow them to share parallel domestic acts as well as cooperate to certain degrees. The man must not use his toilet because it leaks into her apartment; their water pressure is dependent on the other’s usage, and so on. In their numbing solitary confinement, the man and the woman share time and space, not becoming one but seeing two perspectives on a given day. The actual hole then is the viewpoint into the other person’s world whether we see that character’s looking through it or not. It is often luminous, this hole, asking for one to peep through it. Its brightness is contrasted with the darkness of another much larger hole we see in the film, a black abyss where one infected individual scurries into, never to have human encounters again. The film is perhaps a story of encounters and not the mere bleakness of the characters apparent isolation. The tragedy is easy to point out, notes Jared Rapfogel, the links between characters more difficult.
The deteriorating spaces of The Hole are contrasted with the fantasies of either character or both simultaneously. Tsai accomplishes this through choreographed lip-sync musical numbers to the songs of 1950s Hong Kong pop sensation Grace Chang. These numbers, to varying degrees, represent the interiority of the character, a sort of “collective dream-in-general” within the catastrophic existence of everyday life. The real of the catastrophic is interrupted, says Amy Herzog, where these musical spectacles “serve to penetrate and transform… real space [into] a zone of indeterminacy where the real is falsified and burlesqued.”
The first song follows from the most mundane television program watched by the woman. The hostess embellishes the taste and quality of instant noodles, making it seem the food of kings and queens. The program fluidly breaks and we find the woman elegantly dressed in an elaborately lit elevator in the apartment complex, itself still decrepit. The song “Oh Calypso” describes the pleasures of dance as a way to escape hard day’s labours. The second tune, “Tiger Lady”, was sparked by the man’s leering through the hole into the woman’s apartment. It lyrically establishes her initial fright at this intruder, taking place in the stairwell of the complex again. After some exchanges between the man and woman regarding the leak and plumber, another song alters our perception of the two individuals. This song shifts from distance and isolation as the two characters dance together in their corridor and the lyrics describe the desire of the woman for this man. The prominent theme then is the fantastic amongst the ruins; well-dressed and made-up, happy and flamboyant, all to the backdrop of cold and lonely elevators, stairs, and corridors. The shot directly following the song and dance solidifies this point, for instance, after the first tune concludes in the sparkling elevator, we cut to the man, drunk and passed out in the lift (and who eventually makes his way back to his apartment only to vomit in the hole and into the woman’s abode). (Same for Wayward Cloud). We should agree with Tsai that the musical scenes “are specifically tied to the locations,” thereby displaying a sense of “escape” from the current catastrophic existence.
Between the third and fourth song fantasy is played out in the diegesis itself. The woman, perhaps already losing herself to the virus, is stripping the walls of their coverings whilst talking erotically on the phone. A pun makes it apparent she is talking to an admirer when she repeats the “what am I doing?” and says “stripping.” She asks if the person on the other end of the phone wants to look through his hole in the floor as she undresses herself. As she begins to sensually touch herself, we cut to the man at work, and thus the fantasy element becomes quite apparent. She is speaking to herself.
The last lip-synced song is mine and others’ favorite. The woman is alone in a bath, sitting idly; she all-of-a-sudden sneezes and is therefore infected with the virus we surmise. The film then cuts to a concrete stairway decorated with bright satins. The tune “Achoo Cha Cha” is about being tied to a guy one no longer wants; she is allergic to commitment the songs wishes to say, or in the narrative of the film, now infected she can no longer begin a relationship with the man upstairs. The remaining minutes of the film follow the woman as she crawls on the floor like a cockroach and hides underneath her mounds of paper towel. Viewing her behaviour, through tears and moans, the man upstairs hammers at the floor to enlarge the hole and rescue her. The hole that has brought them together now divides them. One more event and song follow.
It is possible to misread the fantasy of the very last scene and song. The woman emerges from her mound of paper towels, no doubt very ill. The man upstairs passes her down a glass of water, extends his arm through the hole, and then lifts her up into his apartment. Firstly, this leap into the apartment is impossible: the hole is simply not big enough; second, there has been no indication of any persons recovering once infected. This is a very tragic turn to what could have been an eventual coming together of the two characters. Instead, Tsai remains at the level of fantasy, as the final shot is of the two dressed in evening wear, slow dancing to Chang’s “Alone Together.” This bleak finale never quite gives us what we want, i.e., a happy love. Rather, Tsai concludes with the words, “In the year 2000, we are grateful that we still have Grace Chang’s songs to comfort us,” followed by his trademark signature indicating the art of the film we just watched.
Although we do not have it quite yet, this is almost a story of love. True, Tsai denies such accusations, claiming that the woman is intentionally much older than the man so as to deny the possibility of love, but I and other critics disagree. I think that the refusal of a “real” romantic ending is instead to give us a different look at love, perhaps something like Alain Badiou has been suggesting in his work. Love is not marriage with procreation, nor is it the spontaneous and otherwise passionless sexual encounter. It is instead the scene of the two, where two do not fuse into one but come to share the world from dual perspectives. This is what the hole in the film, as I tried to suggest above, really accomplishes. In the midst of catastrophic existence, writes Badiou, love is obstinate and itself refusing to be denied its longevity. As the man hammers away at the floor in a flood of tears, he maintains his commitment to the woman below; the final dance number extenuates this, of course an entirely tragic end but also showing us a fidelity that is the definition of love: to remain with an in love again all odds, against all viruses and catastrophes, and despite the crumbling spaces the characters inhabit. Perhaps then love is re-invented in The Hole, rallying to its defense Badiou called for, i.e., against its lackluster expression through marriage or promiscuity; except, rather than philosophy, it is accomplished by art (a strategy Badiou would like I think, since he cites Rimbaud on this necessity to re-invent).
The Wayward Cloud
The Wayward Cloud is another narrative of ruin, albeit less so than The Hole. Taipei is in the midst of a draught; the juice from watermelon a source of fluid since there is little water. Despite thirst and lack of resources the shooting and production of pornographic films must continue. We are introduced to Hsaio-Kang (Lee) and Shiang-chyi (Chen), the former a fresh porn actor and the latter just trying to survive.
The bulk of the film is comprised of the two characters spending time together, fantasizing, flirting, and going about their business. Shiang-chyi never does find out Hsiao-kang’s profession until the end of the film, and how she responds to it, is certainly up for interpretation. Tsai, much like in The Hole, withholds the romance coming to fruition. We know from the beginning however that some sexual encounter will take place however. The V shaped corridors introduced in the first long shot, where Hsiao-kang’s co-lead in the porn production passes by Shiang-chyi unnoticed, re-emerge later in the film as Hsiao-kang scales the wall like an insect and his crush feeds him. The connection of the V shape is rendered significant also by an early shot from Shiang-chyi’s perspective, a shot of the V of her legs and the TV in the background. This erotic intensity looms throughout the two characters’ encounters.
But even in the video store, in that tucked away pornography section in the back, Tsai will not offer us a completed sexual encounter. Shiang-chyi attacks Hsaio-kang with kisses and caresses. However, overwhelmed by the naughty dvds and his career, he has developed an addiction to pornography, in his case, only able to perform sexually when performing sex for a camera. Thus the very controversial final scene (at both Brisbane and Berlin film festivals audience members walked out) is the conditions necessary for the proclamation or connection of love between the two characters. The Japanese porn actress is found unconscious by Shiang-chyi, likely from dehydration. She and a member of the porn crew carry her body back to the set, and here, Shiang-chyi discovers her love interest is an actor. A lack of water for the earlier shower scene and an unconsciousness actress in the following scene does not stop the crew from going back to work.
The setting is split between the bed and a lobby, Hsiao-kang performing in the former and Shaing-chyi the witness through the grate or gigantic hole in the latter, which echoes an earlier split or division between the two characters who are in fact perpetually unable to communicate and are separated by space, much like the characters in The Hole. Shiang-chyi’s shock in raping the unconscious actress is perhaps the realization that morality and civility has fallen away, but according to Adrian Martin et al., “it is also the expression of love they arrive at.” Shiang-chyi becomes the stand-in for the unconscious porn actress, herself making the necessary moans and groans for arousal, both for herself and for the male actor. And there is something comic here, bringing our attention to the illusion of the groans and moans of actors and actresses in actual pornographic scenes. Since the characters do not speak, and have not at this point made love, rather than uttering the words “I love you”, Hsiao-kang expresses himself by finishing his performance in Shiang-chyi’s mouth. His ass sweats in a close-up and she tears in extreme close-up: the draught, that is their delayed sexual encounter, has come to an end.
The Wayward Cloud is the only other film by Tsai that has lip-synched and choreographed musical numbers, this time making use of other pop stars besides Grace Chang. The first expresses Hsaio-kang’s long search for lost love; the second, after the two characters meet again, has the woman lip-syncing a tune which cherishes their reuniting and future love; the fourth song, after the characters first date, ripe with flirting and a sexy cigarette, describes mixing up dates and confusion with dating; and lastly, following the failed video store sex, the lyrics about keeping focus and not losing track of your goal parallels Hsaio-kang’s inability to get aroused (and the lyrics, “Gently let you spirits rise” takes on a double meaning).
I find these musical insertions much more successful than The Hole in terms of their entertainment value, appeal to character’s interiority, and as Fran Martin suggests, exhibiting “the productive power of desire.” The film is also more successful in bringing fantasy out from just the musicals. Throughout the picture there are numerous instances of the fantastic incorporated into the diegesis. For instance, the first song takes place in a water reservoir where Hsiao-kang is bathing himself, and thus, to connect the two lost lovers, Shaing-chyi’s faucet produces little bubbles that float into her bedroom while she sleeps. And once our characters meet, Hsiao-kang helps Shaing-chyi retrieve a key that she had dropped and had been tarred over. He excavates it with a knife and miraculously a spring unveils itself, symbolic no doubt of the love the two will develop, exemplified by the transition to the second song which in fact anticipates a future together. The Wayward Cloud is comic, tragic, and truthful: making us realize love is perhaps a fantasy, albeit an extremely pleasurable one in this story. This is what I find so intriguing: love is often shown to be murderous and suicidal thanks to some unfulfilled fantasy; with Tsai on the other hand, while still remaining a bit of a pessimist fantasy may in fact be productive and bring people together. However, if we make a connection between the love of The Hole and The Wayward Cloud we come around to a conclusion that the fulfillment of sexual or romantic urges is an event which still produces much displeasure. Perhaps as Tsai would have wanted us to do since each film builds on and resembles others, and Tsai’s work as a whole, Tony McKibbin argues, is less about the “mechanics of narrative” than “metaphysics of coincidence”: single films can be put together by critics and theorists to flush out such a metaphysics.
The romantically and sexually unfulfilled story of The Hole is in fact fulfilled in The Wayward Cloud. Yang, the actress who plays the woman downstairs, is a frequently used actress in Tsai’s films (like any auteur director). In The Wayward Cloud she is the Taiwanese porn actress in the shower scene. Thus I suggest she can be read intertextually as the woman downstairs from The Hole. If this is the case, the man upstairs and the woman downstairs finally get together for a sexual encounter. The result however, as a squeeze bottle of hand cream squirts onto her face, mimicking what would be a “money shot”, her look of immense sadness paints a very grim portrait of contemporary love. Her despair at objectification is heightened by the transition to her own lip-synced musical number, whose lyrics express degradation by men “so brutal and jaded”, and selling her soul to keep her heart true. In other words, the romantic and sexual fantasy of The Hole, now fulfilled, has left her utterly empty. When put together, the notion that Robin Wood develops in his review of The Hole as entirely hopeless, is made all the stronger by The Wayward Cloud.
We can read Tsai as probably more a pessimist than optimist when we put these two films together. I have sketched how fantasy can in fact be pleasurable, but perhaps in some reference to a lack that can never be fulfilled, Tsai upholds his cynicism for contemporary love. “If you look at real life”, he says, “sex is difficult. All human relationships are difficult.” But at least we have his choreographed and stylized musical numbers to comfort us.