Exit, the debut feature of longtime director of photography Chienn Hsiang, is startlingly accomplished. In scenes that play out with scant dialogue, the daily rhythms of Ling, an isolated, middle-aged Taiwanese woman (Chen Shiang-chyi), repeat themselves with increasing desperation. While her husband is away working in Shanghai, she loses her factory job; her daughter actively avoids her, and, having no social life outside of work, Ling restlessly fills her evenings with dressmaking and anti-aging regiments from Shiseido. While visiting her aloof mother-in-law in the hospital, she develops feelings for a young man severely injured in an industrial accident. She explores her desires by fantasizing about dancing the tango, in a dream life that’s shown in impressionistic, color-coded sequences. But Ling’s struggle to discover who she is, independent of her roles as worker, wife, mother, and caregiver, has mixed success at best.

On Saturday, Chen, who’s worked with Edward Yang, won the Golden Horse for Best Actress (beating out Gong Li). FILM COMMENT’s Violet Lucca spoke with Hsiang in August shortly after the European premiere of Exit in the Locarno film festival.

Chienn Hsiang Exit

This seems like a very unlikely subject for a male director. Can you talk a little bit about how you developed this project?

A few summers ago, I was on a bus. There weren’t many people on it. A middle-aged woman sat beside me and looked straight ahead with her eyes empty. It was very hot, but she was wearing a coat. I looked at her face, and saw her wrinkles. I thought that she must have been a pretty girl 20 years ago. Then I thought: “Where is that girl?” She must be hiding somewhere inside, because of the age, because of the environment—a shell, layers upon layers. Then I thought about this little girl coming out. What would happen? That’s why I wrote this film.

I think that middle age is the same for men and women: it’s the last moment… The first two characters in the Chinese title [迴光奏鳴曲] mean that when someone is dying, at the last minute he will become lucid, and die. A direct translation to English would be “returning light.” I think the protagonist of Exit is at the line before menopause, and before this last-minute moment, she wants to grab something—she’s just woken up.

It’s handled very realistically. How did you work on the script?

We did interviews with hundreds of middle-aged women. We asked: “What do you want? What do you think about love? What can you say about desire?” Most of them didn’t want to talk about desire, but some of them were very direct. And [there’s] my team: my producer is a middle-aged woman, my costume designer is a middle-aged woman, my main actress is a middle-aged woman. So I had a lot of people around me, showing me what to do. The funny thing is, if I did something politically wrong, everybody jumped on me: chauvinist! We had a lot of discussions, but I think it’s the same—a little different [for men], but the same…

For instance, the mask: I originally wrote that after peeling off her facial mask, she threw it into the garbage bag. And everyone jumped up: no! This woman, of this social status, will use all of it. She’ll rub it on every part of her body. And I thought: “That’s beautiful!”

I loved that moment. When you were doing the interviews with women, did they actually say “to me, desire is tango,” or was that an element you added?

No, I added that. For me, tango is a very sexy music. And I think tango hides something… the inside desire. Especially in Piazzolla’s tango. It’s so sensational. You can feel the thirst, the heartbeat—everything. I like that.

Chienn Hsiang Exit

When she’s on the roof, or trapped in her apartment, or even when she’s pulling the curtains in the different hospital beds, there’s a real continuity of space and a real continuity of color. How much of that did you create?

When we went the locations, they were totally empty.

Where did you shoot?

Kaohsiung. I liked the way the hospital curtains curved, I liked the bookshelves, the cots, that light blue color. We tried to transform the space into a home that was also a trap.

So when you were dressing the set, when you were putting things into the apartment, was the title already in your mind?

It was. You know old houses: you cannot throw anything away because they still work, so they’re still there, old things, like the shelves. The whole room is set up like this.

Just before the shoot, we stayed there and talked to the neighbors. We talked to the hair salon mama and the street food vendors. The location is project housing; it’s a very lower-class area. It’s a very old community, about 50 years old.

Ling feels obligated to look a certain way, to preserve her beauty, and her husband feels obligated to preserve a certain economic stability.

Too many things can be solved by money. You can buy something, you can transform your feelings with money. But you’re cheating yourself. What I wanted to say was, if she doesn't have money, she will have no choice but to face her problem. We set up the plot this way so that it’s an extreme environment to face the truth inside.

The story may be about the lower classes, but in Taiwan right now, the middle and lower classes share the same problem. All the men go to China to earn money. They have to leave their house, their home, and only the women and children stay home. The whole biological environment has changed; everything has changed. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia: the same problem. In this situation, she has the chance to face herself—without her husband, without kids, only her.

Chienn Hsiang

That’s scary for everybody.

And sad, too. When I go to the Hong Kong Film Festival, what people are most interested in is films about husbands going to live in China. It’s very different here in Europe.

How did you work with Chen Shiang-chyi, and build up a rapport?

First, there was preparation. We sent her to the factory, the clothes factory, to have her use the sewing machine and make her look like a real worker there. As you know, she’s a college professor, so she’s far away from looking like someone from the low levels of society. So we talked a lot about what these people will be and look like. We talked a lot about how this woman could move around inside her house, do things. Every day before shooting, we had a long discussion. I was also the cameraman, so when we did shoot, there were no other actors, just us. That means I see and watch her, and let the whole thing happen.

So not much was written down?

No. I wrote a script, but it only deals with action. In most of the scenes, I want the action to tell people what happens. With the whole story, I tried to achieve something. True relationships, true emotion, true things are not verbal. It’s what we do.

There’s a saying in English: “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do.”

Yeah. I think by doing something. Even though the man at the hospital cannot see, hear, or speak, he can feel it—it translates.

Chienn Hsiang Exit

What motivated you to move from being a cinematographer to directing?

Good question. A chef is cooking, and I’m always standing there, watching and helping them cook. I watched for 20 years. I learned a lot of ways to make food, but I never did it by myself. That’s a triumph. I work with a lot of famous Taiwanese directors, and I learned a lot from them. But I want to cook my own food.

Are you satisfied with the film?

I am, because it’s such a low-budget film, and a lot of people helped me. For me that’s very touching. Also, Chen Shiang-chyi is very experienced and talented, and she gave me a lot of advice. The art director gave me a lot of good advice. My editor is a college professor; he was my college classmate, and he also studied at UCLA. He gave me a lot of good advice.

Do you have any other projects in mind that you’re working on right now?

I’m trying to write now. It’s difficult. I want to do something about a man who’s the same age as Ling, something about what love looks like for men at this age. For women, menopause is a line, and puberty is a line. Before that, I don’t think there’s a difference between sexes. After 60 and 70, I think that difference goes away again.