The first few minutes of Taiwanese director Midi Z’s Cannes-selected drama, ‘Nina Wu’, are still with the hum of the city of Taipei, as Nina Wu (Ke-Xi Wu) the film’s namesake and protagonist, returns to her apartment at dusk.
These initial moments, for no obvious reason other than the stark green wash of the colour grading, the thrush of crowds, and muggy climate, feel bleak. The reason why viewers are made to feel unsettled becomes clear moments later, as the very first words Nina Wu says, on a livestream with online fans, in the backlit darkness of her ring light, is “007, if you buy me 100 love tokens.” She promises this, in response to a fan’s lewd comment, which is interrupted immediately by a call from her agent.
Nina Wu, who transplanted to Taipei with the fresh promise of becoming an actress, finds herself at a crossroads eight years later with the nagging sentiment that her career hasn’t truly taken off. That is, until a screenplay arrives in her hands.
‘Nina Wu’ is of course, on many frontiers, a #MeToo film, critiquing, on many divergent levels, the kind of predatory, taxing demands of the film industry that women must endure to reach some semblance of fame. Constructed as a film within a film, the plot centrally revolves around Wu’s nightmarish battle for a part in a spy flick called ‘Romance of the Spies.’ ‘Nina Wu’ then plunges sleekly into a neo-noir, not just aesthetically, but in it’s meticulous structure. Z captures the trappings of the male gaze in cinema, using the script for ‘Romance of the Spies,’ which is boastful in its excessive portrayal of female pain, as a vehicle to show the blurred line between fiction and reality.
Without a doubt, the most harrowing performance is Ke-Xi Wu as Nina Wu, who’s often left unnerved or traumatized by days on set, sobbing on the way home, or on the receiving end of pressure from a number of forces, both crew, directors, and even her own agent. In one instance, her agent snaps back stiffly after Wu implores about a sex scene: “I doubt any real professional would turn down a plum role just because of nudity,” Wu is nuanced in showing how the entertainment world can craft a beautiful facade, and the shame that follows suit after it crumbles.
‘Nina Wu’ also briefly touches complexly on the actresses’s personal life, in which she returns to an old flame, and battles between making her lesbian relationship public or not. In this regard, the film makes an effort to show a woman battling the pressure of the male gaze from many facets.
Z executes and gets his point across stylishly, leaving no stone unturned with jabs at disgraced film producer, Harvey Weinstein, infamous director, Quentin Tarantino, or the French director, Luc Besson. These take form in both an array of subtle easter-eggs and far more conspicuous punches alluding to their alleged misconduct on set. Across the film, these subtextuals are patterned in like an inner lining.
Now, whether this film is entirely watchable, is up for debate. Scenes detailing the abuse Wu receives from the director, which escalate from verbal abuse to full on physical altercations feel excessive, even though they successfully communicate the point. The eclipsed narrative between fiction and truth can become long-winded for the casual viewer, and the discontent, much like it’s real life counterpart, never seems to vanish.
Brilliant in it’s astute social commentary of sexism’s grip on cinema, marvellously shot, and psychologically gripping, the film falters only in its unending grimness.
‘Nina Wu’ is now available to stream on virtual cinemas and on demand & digital.