Tired and jet-lagged as she might be, recovering after a long flight, Chen Shiang Chyi, star of Taiwanese hit Exit, is sparky and talkative. I’d heard that Chen could be quite taciturn but instead she’s friendly, courteous and eager to answer my questions. She’s wearing a casual beige jacket and her hair is tied back; she insists no photograph is taken but despite being exhausted, her skin is luminous and she looks far younger than her 45 years.
We have a translator, Jessica, not because Chen doesn’t speak any English – her grasp of the language is fairly good – but because she’s more confident and comfortable expressing herself in her native tongue. So when I ask her how director Chienn Hsiang found her for the role, she excuses herself in English. ‘It’s a long story, okay?’ she warns me and jumps head into describing the chain of events in minute detail, animated, passionate as if living through those times right here, right now, in her captivating, melodious Mandarin.
Chienn Hsiang had already had the script a few years back while looking for the right person to play Ling when he approached Chen. She was teaching at university at the time, but because her parents had just passed away, she was feeling very low and she showed no interest in either teaching or acting. So Hsiang kept on searching for performers in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, among actors in television, film and theatre, without success. After watching Chen’s films, in particular I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone (2006), he decided that indeed she was the right person for the part and approached her again, two years ago, which proved to be the right moment for both of them as Chen was ready to move on and restart her career.
When Hsiang saw Chen for the first time, he was quite ‘disappointed’, because he thought that a woman in her forties couldn’t look so young and beautiful. He later realised that he was not only looking for a woman who was very capable, but one who could display toughness and show innocence at the same time, and he found that in Chen.
What attracted her to the character?
Firstly, it was the right vehicle for restarting her life and acting career and, and secondly, Ling is very different from her previous characters. It’s very comprehensive; Exit is totally focussed on this woman to tell a story, so a good proportion of the film is devoted to developing her. Ling is very quiet, in appearance, but you can feel the fire inside. She’s like a little, dormant volcano. So to Chen, this was a very interesting challenge, an experiment. These were the two reasons she took the part.
Coffee is brought in. Chen exclaims: ‘Please, have some. Because, we don’t drink.’ I’m not sure if she means they don’t really like it or they’ve had too much of it already. ‘I love coffee’, I enthuse. ‘Oh, good!’ comes Chen’s warm approval. ‘I’ve had three already. Always, all the time, any time’ I add, and we have a good laugh.
To what extent could Chen identify with Ling?
Chen identified quite well with the character. Before shooting, she did a lot of research via Google and interviewed friends of her age, women in their forties, and she found that, to a certain extent, all of them were like Ling. Life, for many of them, seemed to have lost its purpose, its target. They felt lonely and isolated, without passion. At this age, they won’t even go to the cinema to see a movie.
Chen passionately interrupts: ‘No passion for life! Then you won’t do anything to entertain yourself because life is like, you know, just like this!’
People in their forties and beyond, particularly women, are never the lead characters, as if society forgot about them. In Taiwanese cinema, it’s more popular to tell the stories of teenagers or people in their twenties. These are the people who make up audiences, so the stories have to be about them.
Chen: ‘And this middle age… no-one will write a story about that. Every director wants to make a film about young people.’ Chen thinks Exit was an opportunity to speak for people of this age as an actor.
I’m dumbfounded to think that fortysomething women won’t go to the cinema, that they lose their love for life while still being in their forties…You associate this with much older people. It’s quite sad. Loneliness and isolation are universal issues but does Chen think it’s stronger in Asian culture?
It’s particularly a social phenomenon in Taiwan. A lot of husbands go to work or on business in mainland China and leave their wives at home in Taiwan, plus, at that age your children have grown up and left home and the mother would be very lonely. She basically is the only one that stays at home.
Would she be stigmatised if she went out on her own to the cinema or went out with her friends?
Chen is the first to answer: ‘No, no! They would go out maybe checking on their friends or on the phone, but…All my friends of this age… they don’t have any passion to do things for themselves.’
Why do you think that is? Surely, there must be something that you’re enthusiastic about? Don’t they try to find it?
Chen, by this time, is very animated. ‘I don’t think Chinese people have life! That’s the basic problem. Chinese people, Taiwanese people, I think they are hardworking people. I say to my parents, because I went to the United States, and I say to them all the families went out for holiday at least once a year and my parents feel like “Oh! A waste of time!”
Maybe, it’s the mentality?
‘Right, right! The culture, the mentality, everything, the atmosphere, so these groups of people just been forgotten, I think. From an early age. Right, right, right!’
Does she think it’s changing, maybe with the younger generation? Would Ling like to identify with her daughter? (There is a funny scene when Ling spies on her daughter as she’s sitting in a fast food restaurant with a boyfriend.)
In that scene, Ling is dressed like a young girl and she’s also pursuing youth, love, that kind of feeling, but when she sees her girl being with another man, a stranger… if that was not her daughter, if that was somebody else, she might be able to identify with that. But because that is her daughter, the mother, the role of the mother, especially in Chinese culture, is stronger, very protective.
Chen is eager to explain to me herself how Ling feels about that: ‘I got hurt. Because she lies [to] me. She’s not at school. My daughter’s supposed to be in Taipei City not in Kaohsiung City so she lies [to] me so I don’t have a lot of time to identify with her. And I Google[d] a lot of mother[s] and they say: “No! It’s impossible!” You know. Tiger mums.’
In the movie, Ling cares for her mother-in-law in hospital. Women have a lot of responsibilities and are expected self-sacrifice. Does Chen think the younger generations are pulling away from this? Or are they adopting the same attitude?
It’s still a traditional burden in Chinese culture, also in Taiwan, perhaps in comparison to Europe; the percentage of people taking care of their elders is still relatively high. Of course, because times have been changing, kids nowadays, even in kindergarten, act like the kings or queens in their own family. A lot of families only have one child, and maybe once they reach middle age, they’ll start to think about that and take the burden and responsibility. Because the world is changing so fast, it’s really hard to say. To predict.
Chen: ‘Everything changes in one second. So I don’t know what will happen for the next generation.’
How was it to work with the team, with Chienn Hsiang?
He’s patient, encouraging and modest. A lot of directors act like kings, but he’s very humble. He always asks or consults his team, very politely. So everybody wants to contribute; their knowledge and information, their resources to make the whole thing happen.
Chen: ‘Very nice team. I feel like I’m working in the theatre. Because in film, you know, they have different levels. But here everybody is equal, everybody likes asking each other, helping each other so I feel like [being in] a theatre team. Hardworking together…’
Is there someone special she would like to work with? Her idol?
Chen: ‘Juliette Binoche. I love her! She inspired me a lot. When I was a freshman, I saw her first film. I was shocked, and then the second one is The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, and I was so impressed about her acting! So natural, everything happened from inside of her heart and I was so attracted to her!
What inspired you to become an actress? Or who? When did you decide?
Chen: ‘Maybe, maybe, I don’t know! Because the film, that so shocked me was… Isabelle…Huppert when she was, she was very young. I don’t know about that film’s name, when I was at juniors high and I saw the French film in Taiwan, because we, we didn’t have French films at that period of time. And that was the first one and she was the lead…a …working in a factory and she got a boyfriend from university and they had different level. The love is so hard. And she was very young; no make-up. I was so shocked because in my imagination French love…French love’s supposed to be beautiful and romantic…’
And this was realistic.
Chen: ‘Right. So I was so shocked by that film like a twelve-year old. I was touched by her acting. Maybe, maybe, that was something touching me’ she muses.
Unfortunately our time is up – there could have been so much more to talk about. So I just ask her how her journey from Taiwan was.
‘I just arrived yesterday. Very late. This morning I had very bad jet lag’ she says. I tell her she’s doing very well and despite the jet lag, she looks radiant. In fact she looks ten years younger than her age. She thanks me and I add that I wish we could have talked a bit longer as I had so many more questions. Maybe next time.
Next time’ she confirms confidently.
I hope that is a promise.