Nina Wu (M18)
Starring Wu Ke-Xi, Hsia Yu-Chiao and Sung Yu-Hua.
Directed by Midi Z
Nina Wu, played intriguingly by Taiwanese actress Wu Ke Xi, is skinny and lanky with angular shoulders and high cheekbones. Along with a distant gaze which makes her seem like a person preoccupied with something.
We sense that she has seen, encountered or is suppressing something surely disturbing. Maybe downright traumatic. We know that she's clearly psychologically damaged.
Nina is a bit-part actress getting her big break in a movie in this searing, suffocating film-within-a-film drama that's essentially Taiwan's reaction to the torrid Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal in Hollywood.
She is unhappy, unsettled, unsure and is plagued by paranoid fantasies. She imagines her sick mum being strangled in a hospital bed. A wacko beautician in the clinic she goes to seems to be stalking her. And there's this strange recurring sequence — she keeps walking about in a daze in a sexy red dress in the sleazy corridor of a hotel. Where she goes past another dolled-up woman — namely, the beautician-stalker — who's also in a sexy red dress staring dagger eyes at her.
Vicious female competition in a seedy hotel? Looks cutthroat sordid.
In Nina Wu — its Mandarin title means “scorching secrets” — the audience keeps guessing what the terrible mystery that's hidden in her head is. It's locked up very tightly in her memory vault.
The gal, a minor internet celeb who titillates men for money in a livecast, has been handed the plum role of lead actress in a period war drama that's going to make her famous. Problem is, this breakout chance comes with a high price — an explicit sex scene requiring her to go full-on naked in a daring, dirty way. It's a huge forbidding deal for a woman to consider. But her male agent tries to push it as something which any actress would do.
“I really can't take it anymore. They're not only destroying my body. But my soul,” Nina keeps rehearsing this line from the script of the film she's making. But it's really the spiritual and moral mantra of this show.
“They”, of course, means “men”. And men, due to their inherent lust, bestiality, power and position in Taiwan and presumably everywhere else, get a very low score here. From the smooth-talking producer to the dastardly lecherous big boss treating women as meat to the tyrannical movie director who slaps, chokes, humiliates and shouts at Nina, they are monsters to appease and endure.
Especially for a small-town girl who comes to brutal and ruthless big-city Taipei and leaves her previously simple life of family and friends behind. A move adjudged here as being akin to the selling of her soul.
Taking a break from filming for the New Year, Nina goes back to her rural home for the Year of the Dog reunion, reconnecting with her debt-ridden family and pining for the sweetheart-girlfriend, Kiki (Our Times’ Sung Yu-Hua), she abandoned.
But she has traded in her lot for big-time glamour. Which means she cannot be rescued from the choices she's made. “I am sorry, director,” she apologises meekly after being blamed again for something that's gone wrong on the set.
Just an aside — the two gals do smooch passionately here. And dogs, both real and symbolic, play a significant part in this story.
Now, Wu has starred in two of Myanmar-born Taiwanese director Midi Z's films — 2014’s Ice Poison and 2016’s The Road to Mandalay — and she co-wrote this story.
Director Z, known for his low-cost, hardscrabble Myanmar-related documentary-like dramas — he calls them “direct cinema” — is making his first fully Taiwanese movie here based primarily on Wu's personal input as an actress who's actually suffered ill treatment. In a magazine interview, Z said that although this story isn't aimed at anybody in particular in the film industry of Taiwan, Wu “wrote from her heart, from her imagination and without self-control”.
The result is this stylistic arthouse throwback to a sorta Wong Kar Wai's 2046 film-set look laced with a touch of Hongkong director Yonfan's gay themes mixed in with stark Taiwanese-style slice-of-life drama. You either like it or you don't.
I find this flick, which unveils itself steadily but not always successfully, really quite fascinating as powered by the captivating hollowed-out Wu in her unbearable darkness of being. She ties together a great two-in-one setting of sheer ugliness in the fake pretend world she's now in and sheer longing for the real hometown she's given up. In both worlds, though, the men are cruel beasts to either confront or surrender to.
Nina Wu has been described as Taiwan's contribution to the #MeToo movement. But there's one big difference. The sex crimes here are certainly heinous. But there is no ultimate victory. Director Z's tale is a brutal indictment of the bullying Weinstein culture that's more an open-the-closed-door expose than a nail-those-evil-bastards payback.
Z says that the film “depicts all the women who have been fighting bravely against the deeply rooted unfairness and restraints put on them in the workplace”. You'd be hard-pressed, though, to believe completely the shocking depravity and wanton callousness on trial here.
I don't know about the closed door. But do film crews in Taiwan really not care if their main actress is almost run over by a car or thrown overboard and nearly drowns when filming goes wrong at sea?
Nevertheless, you'll be absorbed by this film. The damage done to women by predatory men in charge can be lasting and, yes, infinitely mysterious. The vile sexual crimes of Harvey Weinstein took a long time in coming to light.
Nina Wu here offers a reason why. (***1/2)
Photo: Shaw Organisation