Nina Wu, the newest outing from Taiwanese director Midi Z, evokes a restrictive gaze from its onset. Initially following the titular main character (played by Wu Ke-Xi), an actress and webcam performer, through her daily routine, the film immediately communicates an idea of constraint in the way she acts. Whether she appears in public, or in her modest apartment cooking for herself, she always seems under the weight of a pervasive eye. This introduction to Nina sets the stage for a psycho-thriller that doesn’t shy away from playing with an idea of intersection between reality and fiction, never hiding from hinting at real events inside of the abusive movie industry, and commenting on the vulnerable position actresses are usually forced to be in.
Nina, previously struggling to get her first big break in acting, seems to finally get an enriching offer as a star in a prestigious production. However, the role requires her to perform explicit sex scenes, something she appears to be uncomfortable doing. Reluctantly, though, being pressured the producers, she commits to the role. From then on, Nina falls victim to a pushy and outright violent director that seems bent on exploiting her body and mind during the shootings to achieve his “artistic goals,” with no regard for her dignity. She’s not only forced to degrade herself to gratuitous nude scenes for the shoot, but also to repeat her lines to soulless exhaustion. In a particular stand-out scene, the director goes as far as to scream in her face and slap her for an “accurate reading,” forcing her to lash out at him temporarily before she’s complimented for her performance.
Nina’s mind-state suffers as a result, and in each scene, we see her more and more numb and broken down. Her own life starts to blur with that of the character in the film she’s shooting, muddling her identity between the two environments, but permanently trapped in the eyes of an audience of voyeuristic, vulture-like men in both. In scenes reminiscent of films like Inland Empire, the director repeatedly pulls the rug on the audience, revealing that Nina is actually acting in the movie and that we aren’t following her in her daily life. While this “trick” is nothing new, it’s still thriving in creating an uneasy, ambiguous atmosphere as we see Nina’s grip on reality starting to fall apart, succumbing to everyone’s expectations of her, while we can only remain powerless witnesses to her mental downward spiral to the point of mania.
It is then that the film starts introducing side-plots relating to Nina’s family and an ex-girlfriend that doesn’t do much other than needlessly complicate the story, and add other woes to her already tragic storyline. They’re a mostly unnecessary, soapy diversion to the intense, cohesive, and dense psychological atmosphere built up until then. However, when focused, even while plot-wise it doesn’t seem to represent something all that new for this type of psycho-thillers, Nina Wu is still resoundingly potent and scathing in its observations on harassment in the film business, especially considering the cultural context it surges in. It stings even harder considering that as the film premiered at this year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard section), films made by individuals guilty of the exact type of behavior Nina Wu tackles were being received with open arms by many inside the festival. Kechiche’s Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo comes to mind as an example.
Nina Wu harrowingly damns a system that thrives on the trauma and suffering felt by women like Nina, and the way it drives and pushes them over the edge just to satisfy the desires of abusive male directors and producers. It also shows how the successes achieved by many of these actresses, the smiles and congratulations that come after the undignified treatment, are forever tainted by irreparably scarring experiences. The fact that the lead actress Wu Ke-Xi co-wrote the film certainly helps giving it a strong sense of raw and blunt truth, also felt in her bold and courageous performance. Despite this, the lack of a needed moment of catharsis is still felt. Never in a position of power, there’s no hope or redemption for Nina, with the film ending with her in the most helpless state possible. It’s arguable whether this fatalistic approach helps to combat the issues it deals with, or just helps to perpetuate them, doing nothing more than drawing deserved anger from the viewers. While still raising these questions, Nina Wu manages to be an effectively distressing experience, that often works as an exercise in portraying a character’s mental deterioration on screen, with enough ambiguity and unpredictability to feel genuinely terrifying when it’s at its most focused.