Exit (Hui guang zoumingqu)

Taiwan (2014) Dir. Chienn Hsiang

In the wake of the film industry in Mainland China opening its doors to wider avenues, there has been concern of a decline in the output of Taiwanese cinema, but with the current success of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin and Exit, the directorial debut from renowned cinematographer Cheinn Hsaing, Taiwan is not willing to throw in the towel just yet.

At the centre of this tale is Ling-tzu (Chen Shiang-Chyi) a 45 year-old woman who has just been told she is suffering the menopause a bit earlier due to the stress in her life. Her husband is working in Mainland China yet never answers her phone calls; her teenage daughter (Wen Chen-Ling) rarely speaks to her and when she does it is with belligerence and rudeness and her mother-in-law (Pai Ming-hua) is in hospital waiting for a hip operation.

Ling-tzu is the only one making an effort but can’t catch a break, losing her job at a garment factory when the owner (Tsai Ming-shiou) moves to the mainland. At the hospital a male burns victim Chang Shih-chun (Tung Ming-hsiang) is brought in, his eyes covered with bandages. With the nurses rarely around Ling-Tzu takes it upon herself to tend to Chang and gradually finds something resembling a worthy purpose among the malaise that is her life.

A languid paced and rather quiet affair, Cheinn – whose works include Blue Gate Crossing and 20,30,40 – has clearly studied arthouse auteur and regular collaborator Tsai Ming-Liang’s use of storytelling through silent, well-framed and non-intrusive shots – albeit at a fraction of the tedious lengths Tsai is known for. Thus even if this film feels inert and dreary to impatient viewers it does at least look superb.

Yet the bleak veneer is very much a key ingredient in creating the unfulfilling world Ling-tzu is trapped in, the drab colours of her small apartment and the peeling wallpaper as stark a symbol of oppression as the front door with the dodgy lock that keeps sticking. Even when Ling-tzu does make it to the outside, life isn’t so breezy there either, with the sweaty shop floor of the garment factory and the packed bus on which she takes an uncomfortable ride home to an empty flat.

Cheinn isn’t intent on making this is a feel good film and while that may seem like a spoiler, Ling-Tzu is a doomed character from the start through no fault of her own but she is too much of a nice person to actually say “to hell with this” and just make a break for freedom. She gets a chance to join a dance class after a work colleague reveals her passion for it but as ever, Ling-tzu’s life gets in the way.

There is something rather tragic about the fact Ling-tzu should get a semblance of fulfilment and possibly even a sexual reawakening from tending to Chang in the hospital, a man who cannot communicate outside of a few guttural grunts. Yet a simple clenching of her hand shows Ling-tzu that Chang is appreciative, a feeling Ling-tzu hasn’t felt in  a long time with a rude daughter and absent husband.

Yet this whole curious situation is handled with a sympathetic and tender hand, through Ling-tzu’s gentle physical gestures and the quietly observant camerawork, making it feel like a poignant and touching love story. It also endears the audience further to Ling-tzu as she cheekily pulls the curtains around the other beds in the ward to tend to Chang, a clear spring in her step as she executes her well intended but surreptitious good deed.

The dance classes are a fantasy in more ways than one – Ling-tzu often closes her eyes and dreams of tripping the light fantastic and we see a different side to her, a happy, content and smiling Ling-Tzu which rarely shows up otherwise. These scenes bring a touch of colour, light and levity to the largely dour proceedings yet never once feel incongruent, Ling-Tzu’s deceptively hopefully personality the palpable connecting factor.

Visual symbolism and allusion is the order of the day in relating this story to us, which despite the Asian setting is not a local problem and will find an empathetic audience to Ling-tzu’s plight across the globe. The unappreciated woman trapped within the hell of her regimented daily life is a universal one which Cheinn approaches with an arthouse sensibility that should extend its appeal beyond Asian borders, at least with a more discerning audience.

Little touches such as Ling-tzu hesitantly making a dress for the dance class or agonising over her make-up which she then removes again show us a woman who has essentially admitted defeat before the fight has begun. Her dowdy wardrobe accentuates the downtrodden aspect of her life while the irony of Ling-tzu feeling uplifted in the hospital while in the presence of Chang is not lost on Cheinn, who shoots these moments with a sense of warmth and daring glee.

Cheinn however can’t claim all of the credit as leading lady Chen Shiang-Chyi, another favourite of Tsai Ming-Liang, is the lynchpin of the entire film, delivering an award winning performance essaying both the vulnerability and indomitable integrity of Ling-tzu. Looking much younger than her character’s 45 years (Chen’s own age at the time of filming) the sense of weariness in Ling-tzu is beautifully captured while her fleeting moments of hopeful respite are suffused with an aching pathos.

At 90 minutes in length the slow pace makes this film feel a tad longer than it is while the ambiguous ending will feel like an abrupt alarm call from a warm soporific daze, but the gorgeous photography, easy to follow narrative and captivating lead performance make this journey a lot more enjoyable.

For a debut feature Exit reveals a filmmaker who has observed and absorbed much while on the job as cinematographer, making his transition to the director’s chair a smooth one, displaying a lot of promise in the process.