Stepping out

Chen Shiang-Chyi talks about her role in Tsai Ming-liang's Exit.

by Jennie Kermode

Chen Shiang-Chyi as Ling
Chen Shiang-Chyi as Ling

The seventh collaboration between Tsai Ming-liang and Chen Shiang-Chyi, Exit (Hui Guang Zou Ming Qu) begins and ends with a woman struggling to open the door of her apartment. Outside, the world is throbbing with life, but is there a place in it for a middle aged woman whose daughter is growing up, whose mother is fading into old age and whose husband is working far away? It’s a simple but weighty film anchored by a powerful performance from Ms Chen, who graciously agreed to an interview and, with the help of a translator, shared her thoughts on the experience of making it.

Ling with her daughter
Ling with her daughter

She was originally drawn to the film, she says, by a character who was very different from those she’d played previously. Her previous characters were more functional whereas there is a more comprehensive process of getting to know this character, Ling, and her world and her life. There is a more complete picture of her transformation. It took Ms Chen about six months to get to know the character herself before filming began. It was a difficult part to present psychologically; a lot of effort was required to deal with all the details and get deep into Ling’s mindset. Ling was somebody with a lot of hidden undercurrents and it required a sophisticated process to put this across on screen.

By the time you are 17 years old, Ms Chen tells me, one has developed all sorts of emotions and the difficult part is digging into the depths of one’s heart to present this with dignity. It’s a big responsibility for an actor but actually she quite enjoyed the process of doing it.

Ling with Mr Chang
Ling with Mr Chang

I ask about the relationship between Ling and Mr Chang, a patient she meets in the hospital when visiting her mother. Ms Chen says she sees this as they key storyline in the film because whilst it may appear that Ling is helping him when he is bedbound, it is through this process that she is able to discover herself, to think about what’s happening to her and the problems in her life. It helps her to discover a new direction in her life. Ling is very lonely because of the absence of her daughter and husband, and initially she escapes that reality by hiding from it and not thinking about it, so that she can feel no pain. Her encounters with Mr Chang help her to discover the meaning of her life.

The film reflects the reality of modern Taiwanese society, Ms Chen explains, because nowadays more and more husbands go to work in mainland China, and after they grow up children’s relationships with their mothers are quite distant, while mothers are expected to stay at home to perform their maternal duties. The film is like a miniature of this.

Trying to find a place in the world
Trying to find a place in the world

There are many scenes in films made in the West where women take off make-up to discover their true selves. In this film, Ling puts on make-up. I ask if Ms Chen sees this as part of her reclaiming her sexuality, and she says yes, but stresses that that’s only one small part of the process of her reclaiming her identity and her value as a human being. To Mss Chen, the most important scene is one where Ling eventually breaks the door which is the start of her awakening. She can finally find her own direction and discover her personality as a human being.

She always tries to develop the character she’s been given, she says, even if she only has one scene in the film because she is a creative actress, so she will spend time developing them as much as possible.

Her next film is Jenny Lu’s The Receptionist, and she tells me that the character she plays in it is like no other she has ever played before, because she’s very aggressive and outward looking and spiky. This is totally opposite to her character in Exit, who is more repressed and passive. When it came to her character in The Receptionist, she actually recommended another actress to the director and she still finds it difficult to understand why Jenny chose her for the role. She thinks the decision was very brave and that this is a very challenging character for her, and she’s really looking forward to the result.

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