From the director Midi Z comes a stylish psychological thriller in the vein of Mulholland Drive (2001) and Black Swan (2010). The semi-autobiographical story (partly inspired by Wu’s own experiences, as well as the stories linked to the #MeToo movement) is written by the film’s luminous leading star Wu Ke-Xi, and it tackles the darker side of the film industry and the hefty price some must pay for stardom head-on. The story may be a stylised, enigmatic mix between reality and fantasy, but Z and Wu’s take on the subject is a candid one, pulling no punches and taking no prisoners. The utterly bleak approach may not be to everyone’s liking, but it nevertheless offers a powerful look at the issues that have rocked the film industry all over the world in the past few years.
The focal point of the story is Nina (Ke-Xi Wu); an aspiring actress who in between bit parts and working as an extra, gives live stream performances on the internet. Nina has all but given up on her dream of stardom when she gets a chance to audition for a lead role in a big-budget film. The only catch is that the role includes sexually explicit content and full-frontal nudity. While this does give Nina pause for thought, a bona fide movie role is too good of an opportunity to miss, and in the end, ambition wins over apprehension.
But Nina’s lucky break soon takes a dark tone, as the director (Shih Ming-shuai) treats his leading lady with an immense amount of disrespect. He not only verbally abuses her, but things also get physical when Nina does not give him the performance he wants. Meanwhile, the rest of the (mainly male) crew looks on as if this is just another day in the office. On top of this, Nina finds herself stalked by a mysterious woman with a bob cut (Hsia Yu-chiao), whose sinister presence is somehow linked to Nina winning the role. Reality, memories and delusions all mix together as Nina navigates her way through the cutthroat world of movie making and tries to keep up a brave face no matter what.
In the background of Nina’s story lurks desperate loneliness, a yearning to return home and back to her ex-girlfriend. She is a long way from home (physically and metaphorically) and the glitz and glamour of the big city life has obviously not quite been what she hoped it would be. But there is also something more ominous. While her emotional reactions could be a mere symptom of being out of her comfort zone and being bullied by her co-workers day in, day out, it seems that there is more profound trauma to be found somewhere in her past. The vivid dreams and delusions she suffers may be pure fantasy, or perhaps a way for Nina’s broken mind to process what has happened to her. The woman in a bob cut could be real or just a menacing manifestation of Nina’s guilt. The question of what is real and what is not, works as the driving force of the story and keeps it intriguing in more ways than one.
The story unfolds like a puzzle. Just like the fractured memories Nina is trying to put together, we as viewers are subjected to the constant trickery of not quite knowing whether we are witnessing events from Nina’s everyday life or scenes from the film she is starring in. More than once we are driven to outrage and awe over how badly she has been treated, only to realise that what we have just seen is merely part of cinema magic. This technique is of course nothing new and has been used in various films before, but it does feel particularly fitting here. It gives the audience an opportunity to get a step closer to the heroine and her struggle as if we are there to share in Nina’s experience as she slowly descends into darkness. It is very intimate and amazingly effective.
Wu Ke-Xi is simply fantastic in the leading role and navigates through her own script work with genuine ease. How this role is performed was always going to be the make or break for a script this intimate and Wu has certainly captured the essence of her own writing in a powerful manner. Her depiction of Nina is vulnerable and raw, the real heart of the story. Together with the cinematographer Florian Zinke, Midi Z has framed the story in a stylised noir fashion, which fits the film’s reality-bending themes perfectly. The slow and smooth nature of Zinke’s camera work helps to enhance the melancholic atmosphere, often feeling like the camera is yet another voyeur following Nina. The dynamic colour-blocking reinforces the detachment from reality. Together they create a wonderfully bleak ambience and beautifully designed backdrop for the story.
When it comes to the #MeToo side of the story, Nina Wu offers a rather grim look at things. Those wanting something with a cathartic payout need to look elsewhere as this is certainly not a story about moral victories or winning over adversities. Instead, it is a cold, hard look at what the film industry has done, and in no doubt continues to do to its performers and how the road to stardom is often not quite what it is cracked up to be. You could criticize Nina Wu for not taking a more critical stance and simply perpetuating the same old problems, but that would be slightly beside the point. The very matter-of-factly way that the film approaches Nina’s story and the universal experience of women succumbing to the evil deeds of powerful men in order to get ahead with their careers, makes a powerful, emotional impact. In the end, a new star is born, but the cost of that stardom is a devastating one. The last images of Nina are not of her getting closure, but finally facing the horrific things that happened to her, giving us context to her story, but no satisfying resolution. Nina is left alone with her trauma, and we the audience are left with sickening unease over the things that unfold. It is a grim ending for sure, but if the point is to leave the audience unsettled, Nina Wu certainly does the job perfectly.
Nina Wu is available for North American audiences via Film Movement Virtual Theatre streaming service on March 26.