EXIT IS FIRST OF ALL an arresting and unbearable portrayal of loneliness, which is fast becoming one of the early twenty-first century’s chief motifs. The debut narrative feature of renowned Taiwanese cinematographer Chienn Hsiang, the film could be classified as a collaboration with its main actress and vehicle, Chen Shiang-Chyi, a veritable auteur’s actress, best known for her work with directors Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang.
Ling, the character Chen portrays, is an abandoned person. Her husband has gone to Shanghai, leaving her behind in a stifling nameless second-tier Taiwanese city. She calls his mobile phone several times a day; he never picks up. Her twentysomething daughter spends most of her time with her boyfriend, barely communicating with Ling, and when she does she makes no effort to hide her bored contempt. Soon she is laid off from the garment factory where she has spent most of her life bent over a sewing machine. After she experiences hot flashes and misses her period she visits her doctor, who informs her she is menopausal—at the age of forty-five.
Ling is a prisoner of her own body: The exit the title refers to is that wished-for threshold her desperation prevents her from uncovering. Chienn deploys the wide-shot throughout; Ling is seen in frames within frames within frames: doorways, dilapidated walls, windows, rooms beyond rooms. There is a precision, even perfection to these shots that makes Chen’s performance all the more devastating. Much as Delphine Seyrig did with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Chen has authored not just a believable character but also a definitive archetype of a heterosexual middle-aged woman at a particular place and time: a person that no one wants to talk to, whose “use-value” has long expired. Exit may be one of the most powerful feminist critiques to come out of East Asian cinema in a long while.
Showing very little in the way of blatant emotion, Chen’s Ling is on edge throughout the film, which takes place over several weeks. Her discomfort and angst are never absent, often manifesting in a clammy appearance. Indeed, the fragility we see on screen is real: Chen fell ill on the second day of filming and remained so throughout the shoot, likening her fevered state to the midlife despair Ling walks in every day. At one heartbreaking, understated moment, Ling hesitates in the middle of a busy street, unable to decide whether to finish crossing, before finally giving up and turning back around. There is no easy way out when you are entrapped by the world’s icy indifference to your plight; you have done all the right things and this is your nonreward.
Though no one cares much for her, Ling continues to carry out familial duties. (Were this a Lars von Trier film, this persistence would be depicted as pathetic; Chienn shows it as natural.) Once she is laid off, she visits her ailing mother-in-law in the hospital every day—the only person in her extended family to do so—and even here she receives little in the way of human contact, as the old woman is usually unconscious. Across from her mother-in-law’s bed, Ling is bothered by the cries and gasps of a middle-aged man with bandaged eyes. Like her, he has no family to speak of; he never receives a visitor.
The man has suffered some traumatic accident. We don’t know what. He is unable to talk; he can only cry and groan. The hospital’s nursing staff is borderline neglectful, and Ling begins to tend to the man. In fact it takes very little to quiet him: a cool rag on his neck, the feeling of her hand against his cheek. Ling discovers that she and the man are deprived of the same thing: touch. Why is it that the absolute easiest thing we might give is the very thing we are most loath to share?
The invalid’s journey to recovery parallels Ling’s arduous attempt to feel like a human being again. Hands lock in understanding, no stipulations are required. There are no obvious resolutions, no spoiler alert necessary. Neither of them will ever reattain what they once were. How they might go on, how they might crawl out of the existences they are trapped in, remains an open question. Truth is always shapeless, and the door is over there—if you manage to get it open.
Exit opens in cinemas throughout the UK on April 24.