What happens when the female body starts to succumb to the first signs of ageing?
And, constrained by social conventions, the youthful soul tries to scream out for freedom? It can only result in pain and frustration – as we find out watching the heroine of Taiwanese director Chienn Hsiang’s first feature-length film. Hsiang is an award-winning, veteran cinematographer with a penchant for poetic images and camera movements. Combined with Chen Shiang-Chyi’s excellently nuanced performance, he delivers a truly poignant debut feature.
Ling (Shiang-Chyi) is a 45-year old Taiwanese woman working as a dressmaker in the large city of Kaohsiung. She might as well consider herself a hermit as her husband works in faraway Shanghai, never answering her phone calls, and her wayward daughter hardly pays a visit. When not at work, she spends most of her time in the hospital, caring for her mother-in-law who faces a hip operation. Her eventless and mundane life is made even grimmer when she’s diagnosed with early menopause and, to top this off, her boss decides to downsize his business.
Meanwhile, Ling becomes aware of another patient, lying opposite her mother-in-law. The young man has bad injuries and his eyes are covered with patches. He breathes heavily and whimpers in unconscious delirium, disturbing the other patients. When she wipes his neck with a cloth, the man relaxes and starts to sleep soundly. Now, her tending to Chang becomes regular; out of sight from her mother-in-law, she marvels at his perfectly sculpted chest. Slowly, her visits to the hospital become secretly anticipated ‘soirees’ where she feels both valuable and sensual, Chang’s heaving body and their little intimacies lending the scenes extra sexual tingle.
Who would have thought that a sanitary towel can take on such an important allegorical meaning?
At home, Ling’s hot flushes in the scorching and humid Asian summer, her sexual frustration, isolation and itchy suffering are so convincingly represented that it makes the viewer come out in sweat. In one semi-comic scene, wearing a beauty mask and head towel, she puts her ears to the wall and listens to her neighbours having sex. There are sadly symbolic moments, too. Who would have thought that a sanitary towel, evoking painful cramps and monthly nuisance for many women or kicked aside and despised when found in public lavatories, can take on such an important allegorical meaning? At one point, Ling sits and unfolds a sanitary towel on her lap, gently touching it as if it was baby clothes. Then suddenly folds it back up and starts cleaning a piece of furniture with it.
However, as time goes by, Ling’s jaded dreariness gives way to occasional displays of girlish thrills. It’s as if an egg started to crack and show the tiniest glimpses to reveal the real Ling of youthful passion. The first time we see Ling smile is when she peeps at a colleague teaching her boyfriend tango dancing. The same colleague later persuades Ling to pay a visit to her dance school. In fact, tango music becomes a cheerful companion to the movie throughout, counterbalancing Ling’s anxious gloominess. We see her daydreaming of dancing the tango with a handsome stranger while listening to Chang’s unbearable fits of delirium. It’s Chang, however, who begins to make her feel like a woman again. At one point, she puts on make-up, a pretty dress and glamorous shoes and she suddenly looks ten years younger. A man eyes her up on the bus and she gives him a demurely flirtatious smile. It’s an astonishing transformation like grey turning gold.
The film employs a number of long shots and still compositions that linger on a bit too long but the tension and excitement are never diminished for a moment thanks to Shian-Chyi’s excellently authentic performance, and the strange sexual spark that results from her daydreams and anticipation of seeing and touching Chang. Doing something rebellious in the face of strict conventions is a typical motive in Asian films and sometimes one feels as if Ling enjoyed indulging in her own angst and martyrdom (especially compared to her easygoing, tango-dancing workmate) but the film neither suggests a bad ending nor a perfect solution but, rather, an open road to possibilities. Its title suggests there’s always a way to new experiences, to change.
Exit is a wonderfully affecting and sensitively portrayed story of the human soul and, coming from a male filmmaker, a perfectly depicted picture of female midlife crisis.
Review by Eva Moravetz
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