Sometimes it’s the little things that wear you out; stretching over years, becoming almost invisible until a surge of troubles washes over you and leaves you gasping for air in stormy seas. So it is for Ling, an ordinary, middle aged Taiwanese woman who finds herself alone with her husband working in Shanghai (constantly incommunicado even via telephone) and a teenage daughter, Mei Mei, who’s not very interested in spending quality time with her mother when she’s suddenly made redundant from her job as a seamstress at a factory and also discovers she’s heading into the menopause. Ling has also become the de facto carer for her mother-in-law who’s in hospital (not that her mother-in-law seems to appreciate it very much), where she becomes increasingly fascinated by a badly injured man in the bed opposite who has no family to visit him or take care of his daily needs. In a gesture of kindness, Ling begins by trying to ease some of his discomfort by mopping his brow and dripping water on his parched lips, but this soon transitions to bed baths. This purely physical relationship with a blinded stranger begins to reawaken something in Ling, but will it be enough to save her from life’s disappointments?
Exit is the feature film debut from director Chienn Hsiang, an award winning Taiwanese cinematographer (Blue Gate Crossing) and stars frequent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator Chen Shiang-Chyi in the leading role. Unfolding slowly with minimal, naturalistic dialogue, the shadow of Tsai looms large (not that that’s ever a bad thing) but Chienn handles this extended moment of existential crisis with a steady hand and interesting compositional choices. Occasionally, his metaphors feel a little overplayed - the sticking lock on Ling’s front door for example and her general trouble with blocked exits are nice ideas, but call attention to themselves a little too readily. That said, Chen’s central performance keeps the film well anchored in its everyday mundanity and ordinary despair whilst also ensuring Ling maintains the audience’s sympathies.
At heart, Exit is an intense character study of one woman’s struggles in modern Taiwan as she finds herself caught between several different transitionary moments. Everybody in Taiwan, it seems, is on their way to China. Ling has already lost her husband who never takes her calls any more, she’s just lost her job because the factory owner’s sons are all obsessed with the idea of the mainland - all everyone ever seems to talk about is leaving, there’s no more work here. She lives alone in a pretty run-down apartment where the wallpaper is peeling off the walls (she reseals it with Sellotape) and she's plagued by amorous noisy neighbours next door. Her only ray of sunshine is the dance club run by a former work colleague which, aside from also providing a bit of income in the form of costuming and repairs, is the only thing that seems to catch Ling’s attention.
That, and the mysterious stranger in the hospital with his strange and terrible injuries. Ling’s encounters with the blind man take on an oddly intimate, sensual quality but as soon as his eye bandages come off she becomes shy or possibly ashamed. Likewise, having made herself a nice new dress and wearing the new shoes suggested by her dance club owning friend, Ling goes for a rare night out only to catch sight of her daughter. Once again conflicted, Ling removes her make-up in haste ready to confront Mei Mei (who also rejects her telephone calls) only to discover the girl and her boyfriend have already left, leaving only a vague air of shame and discontent behind them.
Exit is a nuanced and engaging snapshot of a moment of crisis in an ordinary woman’s life. It may be true that we all lead lives of quiet desperation but Ling’s troubles are, sadly, of the relatable kind. Trapped in a rapidly changing city and isolated by its social circumstances and cultural constraints it isn’t surprising that Ling’s frustrations finally come to a head, but like everyone else Ling has to find a way to go on living and watching her getting back to herself becomes an intensely moving experience.
Exit made its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival 2014 and will next be seen at the Glasgow Film Festival on 23rd and 24th February 2015 before receiving a UK theatrical release courtesy of Facet Film Distribution from 24th April 2015.