Thriller, Drama, 1 h 42 min
Nina Wu leaves her hometown and moves to Taipei in pursuit of her dream to be an actress.
Nina Wu is a film that leaves behind a void, a silence. A wound of a film.
Down the rabbit hole we go… Buckle up, this film is heavy! Nina Wu dives deep into psychological turmoil, guilt, denial, split ego caused by trauma and PTSD. It turns the camera towards an industry that has more than a few sins to repent for. Midi Z’s psychological thriller almost feels like it is too much “film” for its 102-minute running time. Complex, layered and nuanced, Nina Wu feeds from previous films dealing with abuse in the film/entertainment industry such as Perfect Blue, Black Swan, Audition, Mulholland Dr., but stands its ground.
Nina Wu (Ke-Xi Wu) is an anonymous actress in her early thirties, struggling to make ends meet in Taipei. A Taipei as devoid of glamour as her rural roots. The film opens with a shot of a tunnel, relevant, as a metaphor for what is to come. She lives alone in a claustrophobic apartment, but she completely transforms for her live stream, a means for some extra income. Her online persona is nothing like the woman shown just seconds before and it places her from the beginning at the receiving end of (mostly) male gaze. There are clues all over her apartment. An article in a paper in the kitchen about the producer she’ll end up working with, a photo on the fridge with a blue gown she’ll end up wearing, the dumplings she’s eating. The boiling pot on the stove with the tip of a bone peeking out forecasts the pressure and turmoil she will be faced with later in the film. She ends up being stripped to the bone, to her core, of her dignity, her autonomy, her sanity. The sound of boiling water, distorted and synthesized becomes the soundtrack.
She gets a call from her agent about a role in a spy film. The film requires a full-frontal nude scene that involves a threesome and she’s hesitant, but he mansplains the artistic value of the whole film and how that particular scene plays into it while emphasizing not to even try for the role if she feels uncomfortable. None of the big screen stars would ever turn down such a part because of an explicit sex scene, but she doesn’t have to do it (she can just be an overworked and underpaid extra for the rest of her life)… She auditions, she gets the role, although during the audition the director crosses off Nina’s photograph. The question of how and when she got the lead part arises and is the fuel for the rest of the film. The answer is hinted at throughout the film, but only revealed at the very end after a whirlwind of reality, lucid dreams, nightmares, paranoia and full-blown hallucinations, all intertwined, in a moment of brute, cruel, raw lucidity. It reminded me of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. I’m not going to spell it out for you, but there are over 70 humps in that scene and it’s excruciating to watch.
A lot like Mulholland Drive, Black Swan, Perfect Blue, the film blurs the lines between reality and trauma-induced dreams/hallucinations. As a viewer, much like Nina herself, you are left confused, trying to put the pieces together and the film within the film doesn’t help with that. The cuts and edits are so sleek that sometimes it takes you a few seconds to realize which is which. In a hospital scene, it is disclosed that her father has been suffering from mental illness, and you are left wondering if it isn’t the case with Nina herself. But Nina’s reactions are a response to the trauma she’s been through, from the sexual abuse which’s memory is painfully repressed and surrounded by guilt and self-blame, to her closeted sexuality and a broken heart.
Nina is trapped in a toxic, exploitative environment. She’s psychologically, physically, and sexually abused by the men in power. Her agent is manipulative. The director pushes her to the point of breaking, by humiliating and physically hurting her, in a scene that, through the camera work, the colour palette, the setting – an isolated hotel, the emotional intensity required from the actress, I read as a reference to Kubrick’s The Shining. I found it particularly witty, considering the mistreatment of Shelly Duvall. Luc Besson’s name is also mentioned in an aggressive and intrusive interview Nina gives after the success of her film. These references set Nina Wu’s story in a bigger frame, that of the film industry’s treatment of women in general. Her story, as personal and culturally rooted as it is (I’m sure I missed a lot of the nuances directed to a Taiwanese public), is in fact more than just her story. It’s the abuse, mistreatment, commodification of women in the industry, sometimes under the eyes of other women, like the AD of the spy film. The choice of a 60s espionage film, a genre known to objectify women, is just another brick in the same wall.
The film is built on parallels and antitheses. Nina’s dream to be a film star vs the reality of it. The film goes back and forth between the village her family lives in and Taipei, adding multiple layers to the character. Therefore, her modest upbringing stands in contrast with the blinding, superficially glamourous world she enters, which’s imagery reminded me of The Neon Demon, another film that pits women against women for the approval of the industry. You’ll see something similar in Nina Wu. The cold, choreographed rehearsal of the threesome in the spy film or the lascivious kiss two actresses are made to perform in front of the producer vs the tender, warm lovemaking scene between Nina and her once lover, Kiki (Vivian Sung). Nina’s life and inner turmoil vs the settled, quieter, calmer, but no happier life of Kiki, whom she left behind chasing her dream.
To deal with the abuse she can’t even remember, Nina’s mind takes the image of a woman she’s seen just before the rape and casts her as the villain. This unnamed woman (Kimi Hsia), generically called number 3 (because women at an audition don’t really have names, do they?), product of her own imagination, threatens Nina’s life. She’s the voice of her guilt, the excruciating self-blame she’s feeling. Number 3 also showcases an untamed sexuality. She shows up, when Nina’s sexually and emotionally vulnerable with Kiki, therefore suggesting that maybe, she has yet another trauma in need of unpacking, that of being a woman who had to love a woman in secrecy, because the rural society she grew up in was against it. But number 3 is not the only “alter persona” Nina has. We find out that her birth name is actually Sufen and Nina is nothing more than a stage name. She’s the internet celebrity, and the character in the spy film. This complexity of character is visually coded by the multiple mirrors she sees herself in. Ke-Xi Wu gives a powerhouse performance in this film she co-written, based on some of her own experiences in the film world. She’s mesmerizing, she owns the screen and her performance is engulfing, intricate… and heart-breaking as opposed to the vicious, ferocious, biting Kimi Hsia as No. 3.
The film is rich in references, there’s quite a bit of Lynch and his red rooms, a little bit of Kubrick and his claustrophobic hotel. Maybe some Nocturnal Animals’ edits and it might be a stretch but I sensed a bit of Suspiria (both of them) as well – it’s probably all that red. The hotel room in which the rape takes place is 1408, already established as a horror room by Stephen King. It’s a strong, daunting film. It tackles a painful reality and ends with a rape scene, leaving no place for anything else than the ruthless, unforgiving truth. There’s no retribution after that. No catharsis. No revenge. No punishment for any of the abusers. No nothing. All we’re left with is the abuse, Nina’s scorched psychic and a crippled dream that is not compatible with a crooked industry. Nina Wu is a film that leaves behind a void, a silence. A wound of a film.
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Reviewer, writer and superstar
Maria is a Romanian art and film lover, with degrees in art history and media. She enjoys volunteering for various film and art events, as well as being a part of vibrant, diverse teams. She has a passion for writing and hopes to turn her passions, interests and actual degrees into a profession.