Eye For Film >> Movies >> Nina Wu (2019) Film Review
Reviewed by: Matthew Anderson
Like reassembling shards of broken glass, disparate yet jagged memories haunt an actor on the cusp of stardom in Myanmar-born Taiwanese director Midi Z’s Nina Wu. Unflinching in its horrific subject matter and challenging in its construction, the film explores the aftermath of sexual violence through the prism of a traumatised, fracturing mind; a person and consciousness coming apart at the seams for reasons that are initially unknown.
Having moved to Taipei from her country hometown eight years previously, the eponymous Nina (played with a devastating, fervent fragility by Ke-Xi Wu, whose performance is the film’s strongest asset) has all but given up on her acting career. Earning a pittance from short films, advertisements and a monetised webcam chat, her agent comes to her with a make-or-break role. The catch being that the proposed project includes full-frontal nudity and an explicit sex scene. Is this something she is prepared to do?
Drawing upon her own experiences as a young woman in the male-dominated, and domineering, world of film, Ke-Xi Wu’s script – co-written with Z – throws out a number of red herrings. Layering levels of artifice and purposefully blurring the lines between reality (the world of Nina Wu) and the film-within-a-film whose shooting we witness, rugs are often pulled out from under feet. And to Z’s credit, this misdirection works well in keeping us guessing, following a protagonist who increasingly questions what is real and imagined. Lost in her own world in the opening moments, travelling home on the metro, an iris closes around the underground as the train arrives to a station.
The limitations of Nina’s circumstances on a practical level, and the plain, oppressive restrictions of an industry in which she so longs to succeed cast doubt on whether or not there is light at the end of this tunnel; and what form that literal or figurative enlightenment may take. Cinematographer Florian Zinke’s frequent long-takes force us to search the frame for meaning and his creeping, incremental zooms in and out from Nina emphasise the insidious nature of the male gaze here. From its blood red credit titles and bold lighting, to Nina’s elegant scarlet dress – worn at auditions and in the film, to the deep maroon of a wine that plays a despicable role, the striking mise-en-scene sits on a knife edge of passion, lust and far more sinister acts.
Nina’s career may be set on a one-way trajectory, but what at first appears to be a linear narrative is in fact fractured, elliptical. We are encouraged to form a full image of past and present with elusive puzzle pieces. Though the tangents taken to visit Nina’s family and a former love in her rural village offer an escape of sorts, daughterly responsibility and the potential for genuine emotion, they detract and distract more than their context bolsters the mainline of the narrative. A series of nightmarish dreams that lead Nina along corridors to the same hotel room are the film’s one constant. That this room is 1408 and that an executive producer is responsible for an act of violation that occurs here is no accident. Harvey Weinstein backed Mikael Håfström’s 2007 film of this name, and it was behind the closed doors of hotel rooms that much of his abuse of young actresses took place.
Boldly, bravely taking aim at brutal material, though Nina Wu’s pacing may be a little stunted and some elements of the plot extraneous, it is an arresting watch. The ambiguity and lack of retribution issued upon its conclusion is troubling, given that no argument can possibly be made for looking the other way any more. That said, Z’s film – which premiered at Cannes back in 2019 – is a reminder of the ambivalence with which such acts of sexual violence were treated for so long, and that should not be forgotten.
Nina Wu is currently screening at New York's MoMI as part of a Midi Z retrospectiveReviewed on: 31 Mar 2021