In 1998, Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang was onboarded to an international film project titled ‘2000, Seen By…’ that tasked ten directors from different countries how they would envision the turn of the 21st century. Ming-Liang’s contribution was the 1998 film The Hole, a fusion of realism with an apocalyptic vision of the future on the eve of the new millennium. The Hole presents a near future in which a viral disease has ravaged the population and the remaining inhabitants must quarantine in their apartments and endure an isolated and anomic existence. The film follows two tenants who, by the providence of the crumbling infrastructure of their building, can interact with each other through a hole that connects the floor and ceiling of their apartments. The fragmentary, mostly wordless relationship between the two as they are forced to confront the ordeal of human contact develops across a series of indirect exchanges facilitated through the hole. The construction of a mundane dystopia, one in which the end of the world coincides with instant ramen dinners and bad television, slots well a wider generational estimation that the future won’t end in a cataclysm but a slip into an insufferable and painfully familiar state of dereliction.
Another East Asian film contemporary to The Hole is Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), a digital ghost story in which the internet becomes a tool of transposition for spirits to enter the world of the living. Kurosawa imagines 21st century alienation as coming from an internal impulse that is externalized by the apparatus of the computer, in which the hollow connections made between people digitally only distances them further from one another. That impulse is the desire to establish a sort of presence in the world coupled with the inhibition of social anxiety; to be online is to interact and exchange without having to be perceived by another. The digital interaction mimics the warmth and intimacy of an interpersonal one, but the former is inexorably more isolating and less human than the latter, and what results is a world of ghosts incapable of contact.
While Pulse places the impetus of isolation through computer screens across a global network, The Hole localizes the same notion through a private portal between two worlds. Both the man upstairs and the woman downstairs are unwilling to walk the flight of stairs to meet one another, and instead prefer the imperfect relationship of distance. Despite the mutual avoidance, flamboyant musical numbers dreamt up by the woman downstairs are a psychical wish fulfillment that reveal her yearning for intimacy and affection. Likewise in Pulse, the social fractures in the wake of technological acceleration are contrasted by its protagonists’ pursuit of redemption. The uncharacteristic innocence and empathy of the students who try to save their friends from the peril of the virus (while suffering from the same affliction) disclose the parity of capitulating to alienation and resisting it. This contradiction of wanting to be discovered but unseen that is explored both in Pulse and The Hole help express the loneliness of an overcrowded world — a paradoxical future of claustrophobic solitude.
The motifs of both films extend beyond the era they were released because the sentiments articulated by Kurosawa and Ming-Liang were not only an identification of their present but predictions of what approaches in the world of tomorrow. Though the catalyst of the respective futures of these two films are external forces (a computer virus and a biological virus), the films are constructed to analyze the human nature that is awakened by those forces; human nature that cannot be bracketed by an era but can be understood perennially. It becomes even more pressing and urgent to consider these interior qualities while in the midst of conditions not dissimilar to those of The Hole, as we try to navigate a time in which digital connection is more accessible than ever and human connection remains scarce. The potency of both films comes from their insistence that the spiritual bankruptcy of a society can compel loneliness but never coerce. Embracing sensitivity in a senseless world may not redeem the world over, but can transfigure the immediate world around you, which is a verity that endows all persons with the tools to author a warmer present and brighter future.