Celebrated Taiwanese cinematographer Chienn Hsiang’s debut feature Exit (2014) is a tactile and strikingly vivid expression of isolation which alludes to wider national anxieties. Bristling with sexual repression Exit‘s familiar tale of generational disparity and middle-aged melancholy is elevated thanks to the poignant performance of Tsai Ming-Liang regular Chen Shiang-Chyi. With a precocious teenage daughter devouring her youth and a hospitalised mother-in-law ushering her into old age, 45-year-old Ling (Chen) finds herself trapped in a hopeless situation. Having recently lost her job as a seamstress at a nearby textile factory Ling struggles to get by on a meagre stipend from her husband.
The prognosis from Ling;s doctor that her missed period is a sign of early menopause only exacerbates her lack of self-worth further. With her husband working in China, Ling spends most of her time at the local hospital taking care of her mother-in-law. One morning she discovers a new patient has arrived, a man with bandaged eyes who will inadvertently become her saviour. Over time Ling slowly begins to develop a non-verbal relationship with him, grasping her a chance to formulate a new identity and reclaim her sexuality. Middle-aged malady and sexual repression are common themes in Asian cinema, yet the manner in which Hsiang’s camera follows Ling enriches this particular iteration; a moving and genuinely touching take on society’s obsession with appearance and cosmetic ritualism.
There’s minimal dialogue throughout Exit‘s sombre saga of female alienation, with composition and mood articulating Ling’s complicated surge of feelings, whilst the haunting murmur of a distant tango alludes to her mounting sexual desire. On top of this Hsiang’s humid palette gives this claustrophobic portrait of urban living an airless quality, and as the narrative progresses the film becomes increasingly difficult to watch; like witnessing a mirage of a fragile life sliding silently through the cracks of society. Whilst themes of beauty, body image and sexual liberation fester like mildew, suffocating this stifling drama, Exit also aims to highlights China’s tightening grip on Taiwan. A series of unanswered calls and the general absence of Ling’s husband lingers menacingly in the background as a metaphor for China’s rising economic prowess and subsequent disruptive effect on the fabric of Taiwan’s working-class communities. However, it’s ultimately Chen’s nuanced and devastatingly poignant performance that lifts this slow burning study of gender inequality and female repression into a new stratosphere of filmmaking.
Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble