Exit (2014) — Image via exitfilm.co.uk


Directed by Chienn Hsiang (2014)

Films about characters going through midlife crises are pretty common. So are films about the sufferings of people on the lower rungs of the working class. But it’s fairly uncommon to see the two themes treated in combination. That’s exactly what we get in Chienn Hsiang’s Exit (Hui guang zoumingqu), the tale of a woman coming to terms with aging, disappointment, and loneliness amidst circumstances of economic stagnation and uncertainty on the margins of Taiwan’s Kaohsiung metropolis.

Exit (2014) — Image via exitfilm.co.uk45-year-old Ling (frequent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator Chen Shiang-chyi) lives mostly alone in her small corner of a brutalist concrete apartment block. Her husband, like many of his compatriots, has gone to mainland China for work; her ungrateful teenage daughter (Wen Chen-ling) stays elsewhere, only dropping by occasionally for a night at a time; and Ling has been left with the responsibility of visiting her ailing mother-in-law in the hospital daily. Toward the beginning of the film, Ling’s difficulties are compounded when she is diagnosed with fairly early menopause and then laid off from her job at a declining textile factory.

Beset by these troubles, Ling starts looking for ways to reclaim her youth and individuality, and there are a couple credible candidates. Her boss having let her take an old sewing machine with her from the factory, she sets herself up as an independent seamstress, and with a more flexible schedule, she begins to dream of taking up the hobby of tango dancing, as a friend from work has done. She also learns that her touch is capable of calming the otherwise incessant moaning of the comatose Mr. Chang (Tung Ming-hsiang), her mother-in-law’s neighbor in the hospital, and she begins to take pleasure in massaging his neck and chest.

Exit (2014) — Image via exitfilm.co.ukNow, in another sort of movie, Ling would take up the tango with a passion, Mr. Chang would wake up and fall in love with her, and they would tango together in a climactic dance scene that would earn them the admiration and envy of others and the film a couple weeks of packed houses at the Landmark Edina Cinema. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that that’s not exactly what happens in Exit. There are a number of both practical and psychic barriers in Ling’s way, symbolically represented by the front door that often gets stuck shut, locking her into her decaying apartment with its cramped rooms and peeling wallpaper.

For one thing, there is always work — dressmaking, caring for her mother-in-law, keeping her apartment in remotely decent shape — taking up Ling’s time, tiring her out, and discouraging her. But also, the prospect of anything she has dreamed about actually becoming real seems to intimidate more than inspire her. As Mr. Chang starts to regain consciousness, her visits with him become increasingly furtive, and although she makes herself a dress and prepares to visit the tango club, the sight of her daughter out with a boyfriend takes her off track.

Exit (2014) — Image via exitfilm.co.ukAt the center of the camera’s attention almost all of the time and usually without anyone conscious to talk to, Ling must convey her feelings through her expressions and body language, and Chen handles the role expertly. Meanwhile, Chienn — a noted cinematographer who also handles those duties here — succeeds in creating poignant images of Ling’s life amidst her surroundings: the deteriorating starkness of the apartment block, the diffuse light and nervous energy of the hospital, the isolating wide open spaces of the city streets, etc. Exit is not a cheerful or optimistic film, and at time one wonders to what effect Ling’s downtroddenness is being shared with us, but it contains many circumstances that resonate and images that stick in the mind. Exit returns to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival for a second screening Apr. 23.

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Eric Prindle

administers Bad Entertainment. He is also an attorney who leads a team of legal marketing copywriters at FindLaw. He is not Eric Prindle, the mixed martial arts fighter.