“The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her—her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever-seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us,’ and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her—understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.”
― George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
I’ve been getting up early every day, even on the weekends, to go on a bike ride at dawn – to beat the heat. On weekends, that means I have my daily exercise out of the way by 8 AM. Which is weird for me, because it leaves so much of the rest of the day free.
So I had some of that most precious of possessions – a little bit of free time – and decided to pick a movie from The Criterion Channel to watch. After a bit of bouncing around I found a selection from Taiwan, The Hole. Directed by Tsai Ming-liang, Starring Yang Kuei-Mei and Lee Kang-sheng. It was blurbbed as: Set just prior to the start of the twenty-first century, this apocalyptic tale of pandemic alienation follows two residents of a crumbling Taipei building who refuse to leave their homes despite a virus that has forced the evacuation of the area. As rain pours down relentlessly, a single man (Lee Kang-sheng) is stuck with an unfinished plumbing job and a hole in his floor. This results in a very odd relationship with the woman (Yang Kuei-mei) who lives below him. Combining deadpan humor with an austere view of loneliness and surreal musical numbers, Tsai Ming-liang crafted one of the most haunting and original films of the 1990s.
The film seemed so much to be about the Coronavirus… a viral pandemic of unknown origin, a Chinese apartment building locked down, mysterious men spraying disinfectant, empty stores, coughing and then death…. It was hard to believe the movie was made almost a quarter-century ago – long before Covid.
The biggest difference is that this virus was spread by cockroaches and, after an initial flu-like stage, caused the victims to crawl around afraid of the light, like a roach. Pretty horrible.
The movie is slow and follows a man in an apartment – he has a food store nearby but no customers during the pandemic – and the woman in the apartment below him. The pipes are leaking and a plumber beats a hole in the floor of the man’s place which opens up in the ceiling of the woman’s. The two are then set at odds over the hole, the plumbing, and trying to get on with their lives. In addition to the disease it never stops raining, which adds an extra layer of depression to the tableau. The woman’s place is always wet – from the rain and the leaking sewer above – and she tries to get by with cases of paper towels as her wallpaper peels off all around her. This drab and depressing world is punctuated by colorful musical numbers lip-synced to old Grace Chen showtunes. No – this makes no sense… none at all.
The surprising thing is that all this depression and hopelessness actually has an upbeat… almost romantic ending. I’m not sure if what we see actually happens or is just another fantasy – but it is nice to watch, nice to think about.