Director: Chienn Hsiang
Major Players: Chen Shiang-Shyi, Tung Ming-Hsiang
Out Of Five: 4
Here’s a line to get your head around. It might even to make your blood boil if, to use that patronising phrase, you’re a woman of a certain age. “Women are worthless when they hit the menopause.” The words jump off the screen in Taiwanese film, Exit – and, even more strikingly, it’s just part of a conversation between a group of women working in a sewing factory. Not only that, but the phrase is seen as the norm.
Ling (Chen Shiang-Shyi) is in her mid-40s. Her teenage daughter doesn’t want to know her and her husband works away from home. When she loses her own job, her sense of isolation becomes even more acute. All she has left is the routine of her daily visits to her hospitalised mother-in-law. But she discovers two routes to relieve her solitude: one is ballroom dancing, courtesy of one of her colleagues at the factory, and the other is another patient at the hospital, who never receives any visitors.
To compound her problems, Ling has also discovered that she’s starting the menopause and the film is refreshingly frank about its impact on her. The constant checking to see if her periods have returned, the redundant sanitary towel that ends up being used as a duster and the all-too-familiar hot flushes. Not that her skin reddens when they happen, but the patina of sweat leaves us in no doubt what’s happening to her. It all takes its toll, adding to her sense of isolation and the feeling that her gloomy little flat is conspiring against her. There’s peeling wallpaper, which she tries to remedy with sticky tape and, most significant of all, the dodgy lock on the front door – a door that opens outwards, rather than inwards. And it only seems to stick when she wants to go out.
The patient in the hospital, a Mr Chang (Tung Ming-Hsiang), is just as isolated as Ling, if not more so. Nobody ever visits him, he can’t speak, only ever making guttural noises, his eyes are covered with pads and his left arm heavily strapped. Was he in an accident? Probably, but we never find out. Is he deaf? We don’t know that either. And, actually, it doesn’t really matter that much. What does matter is that Ling seems to be the only person that shows him any compassion, helping cool him down and washing him, which pacifies him. It’s also a relationship without words, and all about touch.
The hospital itself is remarkably anonymous. Most of the time, the staff are noticeable by their absence and, when we do see them, their interest is mainly in Chang. One of them, a male assistant nurse, is his main carer, yet he’s constantly berated by more senior staff for being lazy and inefficient. Ling takes food in every day for her mother-in-law and feeds her as well – there’s no sign of food being provided by the hospital. In the corridors, you see the occasional patient walking slowly aided by a walking frame, not by member of staff. On the occasions that we see them, they don’t seem harrassed or rushed, but nor they seem especially compassionate or caring.
Ling’s story is powerfully universal. It applies to anybody at the very least in a modern urban setting, if not a wider one. Take a look at her flat, ignore everything with Chinese writing on it and it could be in Any City, Anywhere. It’s a bit shabby, but the Sony TV, DVD player, fridge and leather sofa are all there ….. And Chen gives a wonderfully grounded performance as Ling, full of understanding and subtlety.
It adds up to a very unassuming film. And that very modesty means the film’s themes of isolation and possible escape hit you even harder right between the eyes. Currently, it’s a film with very limited distribution. If you can’t catch it now, the DVD will be available in the summer. But catch it you should.
Exit is currently on limited release around the UK and will be available on DVD on 6 July.