The description of noted d.p. Chienn Hsiang’s feature helming debut, “Exit,” suggests a Tsai Ming-liang knockoff: In a hot, isolating Taiwan, a lonely woman (played by Tsai’s muse Chen Shiang-chyi) comforts a guy in a hospital by wiping his body. But anti-Tsais should have no fear, as this generally warm-hearted drama draws viewers close through a mixture of Chen’s subtly nuanced performance and the ever-green siren call of tango music. Though lacking a certain incisiveness, “Exit” is a worthwhile programming choice for international fests, acknowledged at the Taipei Film Festival with awards for best narrative feature and top actress.
Ling (Chen), 45, is a garment worker in Kaohsiung. Her husband, like many locals, is working in Shanghai, and her teenage daughter, Mei Mei (Jenny Wen, aka Wen Chen-ling), has zero interest in spending any time with Mom. The wallpaper in their apartment is peeling, the front door is sticking, and Ling has no one to sympathize with her deep dissatisfaction with life. She’s also become, by default, the chief caregiver for her mother-in-law, who is hospitalized yet unwilling to undergo a necessary hip operation.
One day everything goes wrong: Her sewing machine breaks down, the water fountain stops working, she can never get hold of her husband, and she’s missed her period, which her doctor tells her is the result of early-onset menopause. She’s perpetually tense, and only when Ling spies colleagues practicing a tango in the workroom does she smile. Then she gets laid off.
The bed opposite her mother-in-law is occupied by Mr. Chang (Easton Dong, aka Ming-hsiang Tung), a friendless thirtysomething with severe eye injuries who whimpers constantly. Distressed by his continuous moans, Ling finally goes to wet his parched lips; she spills some water, and when she wipes it off, Chang relaxes and stops crying. The speechless younger man intrigues her, and gently wiping his attractive torso makes her feel both useful and sensual; soon she looks forward to hospital visits.
Meanwhile, her former colleague convinces her to come to a tango parlor. Ling makes herself a snazzy new dress (her first in a long time), puts on makeup, and begins to rekindle her femininity. “Exit” could easily have devolved into a feel-good meller at this point, but Chienn wisely resists easy solutions, and he’s especially good at capturing his protag’s crushing loneliness, both outside, amid the city’s anonymity, and inside her yellowing apartment. The tango theme could use further development — not the music, which is well done, but the physicality of the dance and Ling’s yearning for this particular form of escape.
Anchoring everything is Chen’s full-bodied performance, which is first kept tightly wound, her strained features conveying Ling’s emotional weariness; the summer heat further contributes to the sense of a woman worn down by everything around her. When she does start to smile, it’s as if a window has opened just a crack, and her slightly looser physicality briefly reconnects with the attractive, fun-loving woman she was forced to lock away inside.
Given that Ling is a person who observes rather than participates, the camera takes up a similar role. Her contact with others is minimal, making the occasional touch, be it her hand on Chan’s torso or simply lipstick to her mouth, seem like a deeply sensual act. Tango music weaves a magical allure.