CRUMBLIES… 4 crumblies

An inadvertent addition to the menopause binge-watch, this film looked like a touching tale of burgeoning middle-aged affection in a hospital. Old Jack here and Mad Maud – she’d found it on iTunes – were expecting a woman tending to her mother-in-law to find the eye-patched chap in the next bed a trigger for a refreshed life and happiness. Hmmm. Not to be. Instead, what we got was a nearly dialogue-free insight into the rundown medicare and high-rise flats in Taiwan, and a woman, beautifully played, deep into the loneliness of a cruel middle-age. Her husband works in China and won’t answer her calls. Her teenage daughter is a teenage daughter and won’t answer her calls. She lives in a flat with failing wallpaper, messiness, the sweats and debilitation of the menopause. The lock to the way out is properly sticky, reducing her to tears or rage. Much like her life, and her passions, there is a real need for a decent Exit.

So. The superlative Shiang-chyi Chen is Ling-tzu. She holds the viewer throughout, trudging from scene to scene, broken by sweat and fate. She works in a sewing shop, but not for long. In a scene of subtext and staring, not to mention the gift of an old sewing machine, she is made redundant by the emotionally insensitive boss (Ming-shiou Tsai gives it desk-bound and heavy). She scrabbles at money-making, producing dresses for a ballroom dancing club, but balances her time with sitting and wiping her mother-in-law at the local hospital. And let’s be clear, it’s not great in there. Doctors and nurses do their thing, but they aren’t plentiful. They openly pity the guy in the next bed for having no family to look after him while he’s in there. So, lucky, Ming-Hua Pai as the mother-in-law. Her task is to sleep, open her eyes once in the entire film, and give Ling-tzu something to ignore.

For that man in the next bed draws a touch of desire our of her loneliness. Through a series of visits, she starts to secretively tend to him. Wiping his face around the eyepatches, giving him water, holding his hand as he whimpers and cries. There are a couple of erotic highs, balancing out the constant trudges through town and in her flat (where a shitty signal nearly shows ballroom dancing on her telly)… Ling-tzu wipes down the man’s chest. “Whoop!”, said Mad Maud. But not as loudly as when Ling-tzu dreams of a dance with the man whilst, um, okay, old Jack here may be jumping to a conclusion here, but she was rolling around in bed during the dance and her hands weren’t at pillow height.

Such is loneliness. Early scenes with her looking at scarcely-used sanitary towels and bouncing off the diagnosis of early-onset menopause create a clear foundation. Ling-tzu’s solitude and sadness (like the early scenes of The Whisperers (1967)) trigger a kind of madness that needs deep, sexy solace.

As I said, the film is practically dialogue-free. Ling-tzu wanders her world at a glacial pace, only waking up in moments with the man, or rejection by her husband’s answerphone service. or her daughter’s, for that matter, but there’s a secret waiting there to be discovered…

A mesmerising film with a single, every-scene, entrancing performance. Shiang-chyi Chen elicits understanding throughout and earned all her awards with a deft deployment of her craft. It’s not a happy experience, and I may just have over-dosed on four out of the five readily available menopause films, but it is certainly a stylish one. Okay, and a bit slow.

We cheered when Ling-tzu finally put on some heels.

It’s that kind of film.