A mid-life crisis, family duty and employment to make ends meet sink into a world where reality is as harsh and confusing as imagination. Chienn Hsiang’s drama marks a wonderful debut feature for the writer/director renowned for his cinematography on other projects. Contemporary social realism meets fantasy from the perspective of its central protagonist.

Forty-five year old Ling-tzu (Shiang-chyi Chen) is expected to conform with the role of housewife but has a number of issues to deal with, including employment concerns and her family relationships. Her daughter Mei Mei (Chen-Ling Wen) is more concerned about pursuing her relationship with her boyfriend than answering Ling’s calls. Her husband isn’t helping at all, being away in Shanghai on business, a situation that doesn’t give her any hope as he, too, never answers his phone. She still finds it in herself to visit her mother-in-law (Ming Hwa Bai) in hospital. She feels totally stitched up, and that’s not just because of her employment in a textile and clothing company with limited quality machinery and management demands at seemingly lower wages, eventually results in her being let go. To add to her problems Ling has missed a period and constantly suffers from hot flushes. Her doctor suggests that this is actually the start of the menopause and prescribes treatments, but her anxiety and feeling of imprisonment add to the symptoms. In the hospital ward, in the bed opposite her mother-in law, lies a seriously injured man whose eyes are patched up and arms bandaged. He is Chang (Ming-hsiang Tung) and Ling tries to help him, especially when he seems to be in agonising pain. Life for Ling should be about familial obligations but she just wants to escape from it all as even the wallpaper in her home is constantly peeling away and the front door constantly seems to fail to open when she wishes it to.

Exit is a social realist drama centring on its middle-aged protagonist to the extent that her perceptions of events and reality are ours throughout the film, even when the cinematography depicts distortions that are mirrored in her dreams. This is a presentation of modern life as hell, but its execution is subtle; an accurate and unflinching portrayal of life as normality. This is also depicted in the way Ling tries to use her fantasies as a means of escape – dressing up and applying make-up to detach from her grim world. In some ways this is a fantasy that her fellow worker has given to her through her attendance at ballroom dancing classes, even if Ling doesn’t become an active participant. Instead she does become involved with the dancing class but in one of her roles as a clothes maker, helping the ladies dress for dance and desiring their intricate shoes. When she dresses up, she can forget her miserable existence, if only temporarily.

Shiang-Chyi Chen won the award for Best Actress at the Golden Horse Film Festival and rightly so, as the emotional engagement with this character, coupled with the normality of contemporary life at home, at work, in hospital or on public transport is central to the film. Previously she had appeared in several Tsai Ming-Liang’s films, including Dragon Inn, The Wayward Cloud, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Stray Dogs (Jiao you, 2013). Her one hope of escape is her relationship with Chang which the actively initiates when she buys a towel that she uses to wipe his body, cooling him and calming him, as he cries out in pain. It provides relief for him and gives her a much needed purpose and desire. He cannot see her due to his eyepatches but this anonymity suits her perfectly. It’s a subtle symbolic motif that typifies this film.

Chienn Hsiang has written and directed a feature debut that demands that the viewer engage with the realism portrayed and the dilemmas that social expectations require. It makes a refreshing change to see this world from the perspective of a middle-aged protagonist, her front door, which does not easily open from the inside, a metaphor for her existence. A beautiful look at the angst of modern existence.