If the objective of Nina Wu (灼人秘密) is to present a traumatic experience of an increasingly unstable protagonist through versions of reality so fractured that the audience can’t tell what is real or not, the film succeeds. The disoriented viewer will likely be pondering the significance behind the surreal and unexplained details and abrupt scene shifts long after walking out of the theater — but maybe it’s meant to be that way, as that is how Nina remembers the events.
It’s a timely and much needed subject for Taiwan, which has stayed relatively quiet during the global #MeToo movement. Three years after the acclaimed The Road to Mandalay (再見瓦城), director Midi Z (趙德胤) and actress Wu Ke-xi (吳可熙) team up again, this time with Wu as both the screenwriter and lead. Midi Z’s previous productions all draw from his background of growing up in Myanmar, but Wu launches the director’s craft into new territory as Nina Wu draws from her personal experiences as an aspiring starlet.
Wu plays the titular character, a struggling actress who moved to Taipei eight years ago but has only taken on odd film jobs as extras and livestreams as an Internet celebrity. Suddenly she gets the chance of a lifetime: the lead in a major production, which requires her to bare it all in an explicit threesome scene. But apparently that’s the least of her problems. Nina’s auditioning line in the film within the film, “They not only want to destroy my body, they want to take my soul!” is repeated again and again until it takes on a life of its own.
Photo courtesy of atmovies.com
Midi Z’s rich use of symbolism in The Road to Mandalay continues in Nina Wu, from the gecko slow burning inside a lamp, which sets the tone for the events that follow, to the fateful room 1408 where the “incident” occurs. The room number is an allusion to the 2007 Hollywood horror flick 1408, executive produced by none other than Harvey Weinstein. Motifs are repeated throughout the stylized, slickly-produced film, such as dumplings being the only thing Nina eats both at home and on set, and they all have their subtle meanings that may not be immediately apparent, making one wonder if it’s overkill to cram so much subtext into a film with a rather simple premise. But perhaps even this treatment is intentional, as it gives the audience a taste of Nina’s suffocation.
Like the gecko frying in the lamp, the plot builds slowly, but the atmospheric, horror-esque soundtrack by Lim Giong (林強) keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as if something horrific could happen at anytime. It adds a layer of unease to seemingly innocuous scenes like Wu’s brother barking like a dog to wish his relatives a prosperous Year of the Dog — the audience learns why Nina appears so uncomfortable about his behavior much later. The director is temperamental and abusive, choking and slapping Nina to get her to add emotion to her lines, but overall he seems professional and deeply cares about the job, making it even more painfully obvious that there’s something much more sinister in store.
The film sometimes meanders. For example, an extended sequence about a chaotic return to Nina’s hometown where she tries to win back an old flame, Kiki (Vivian Sung, 宋芸樺), starts to feel like filler just to contrast her seemingly picture-perfect life as a big star in Taipei. The fact that Kiki looks strikingly like a rival actress who competed with Nina for the role (Kimi Hsia, 夏雨喬) adds to the confusion as things continue to unravel. The media has commented on the uncanny resemblance between the two actresses since Sung’s big-screen debut in 2014, and although the two don’t share a scene in Nina Wu, the effect is apparent, further demonstrating how the film’s disarray is actually well-thought out.
While the film strives to demonstrate the psychological effects of trauma and sexual abuse, Nina’s inability to discern reality also risks perpetuating the stereotype of men dismissing women as “crazy” when they speak out against mistreatment by the patriarchy.
Nevertheless, Wu delivers a powerful, evocative performance and should be applauded for tackling such a serious and relevant issue in a movie industry that more often than not plays it safe, even with provocative topics. It’s a good start, especially during a crucial time for gender issues in Taiwan with the legalization of same-sex marriage, debate over gender equity education and efforts among young people to smash longstanding gender stereotypes. The film may come off as disturbing and hard to watch for the average viewer, but it will surely spark much discussion about its loaded cinematic aspects, and hopefully about #MeToo and the lack of it in Taiwan as well.
DIRECTED BY: Midi Z (趙德胤)
STARRING: Wu Ke-xi (吳可熙) as Nina Wu, Vivian Sung (宋芸樺) as Kiki, Kimi Hsia (夏于喬) as Actress No. 3
RUNNING TIME: 103 MINUTES
TAIWAN RELEASE: In theaters
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