The Movie Waffler New Release Review [MUBI] - NINA WU | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [MUBI] - NINA WU

nina wu review
An actress becomes increasingly unhinged after winning a role under dubious circumstances.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Midi Z

Starring: Wu Ke-xi, Vivian Sung, Kimi Hsia, Shih Ming-shuai, Tan Chih-wei

nina wu poster

Once the sole province of the grindhouse, movies centred around sexual assault have moved into the arthouse sphere in recent years with the likes of Violation, Holiday and Rose Plays Julie. Continuing this trend is director Midi Z's Nina Wu, which incorporates that classic arthouse staple of confused and merging identities (see Bergman's Persona, Altman's Images or Lynch's Mulholland Drive) to examine the psychological fallout of an actress trading her body and soul for a coveted lead role.

nina wu review

The script is co-written by Z's regular onscreen collaborator, actress Wu Ke-xi, who drew inspiration from her own experiences negotiating the Taiwanese film industry as a rising young female star. Ke-xi also plays the eponymous Nina Wu, who has spent the past six years attempting to make it as an actress in Taipei, having moved there from rural Taiwan. Her biggest role to date was a one-word part in Luc Besson's Lucy, and so Nina earns a living by performing as a cam-girl, though rather than engaging in sexual acts she charges men to watch her eat dinner while wearing a tight corset and heavy makeup.

Nina's chance of a big break comes when her agent contacts her about an upcoming lead role in a period thriller. Trouble is, the part requires full frontal nudity, which makes Nina hesitant. Bullied by her agent, Nina agrees to attend an audition. It's at this point that the movie begins to pull the rug out from underneath us, causing us to question if what we're seeing is reality, or Nina's hallucinations, or scenes from the film she's starring in. Such skillful blurring by director Z and editors Matthieu Laclau and Tsai Yann-shan is exemplified by a cut from Nina's audition to her walking a street at night, bawling her eyes out. Just as we assume she's flunked the audition we hear her director yell "Cut!" and we realise we're on the set of the movie that Nina is now starring in.

nina wu review

Nina has achieved her long term goal, but at what price? Thanks to an abusive director who engages in physically abusive William Friedkin-esque techniques to mine a performance from Nina, the shoot appears to a living nightmare. At one point she is almost killed when oil barrels on a barge explode, throwing her into the sea. But Nina gets through it and becomes a star. It's then that she finds herself haunted and taunted by a mysterious young woman (Kimi Hsia) who appears in her dreams and possibly even in her reality. Returning to her hometown, Nina finds herself unable to escape this figure who seems to represent some sort of shame or guilt. Just what did Nina do to win such a coveted lead role?

Z and Ke-xi refuse to tackle their thorny subject in an easily digestible fashion. Played with a quiet fury by Ke-xi, Nina is never painted as a one-note victim, and the movie hints that she may be complicit in whatever indiscretion is slowly driving her mad. Nina Wu dares to suggest that for every male producer looking to take advantage of a young actress, there are several young women willing to sell their body and soul for a chance at fame, as seen in a degrading scene where a producer orders Nina and another budding starlet to act like dogs and tear each other's clothes off to win a part. It's implied that Nina may have traded her body without realising she would lose her soul and her sanity in the process.

nina wu review

Essentially a rape-revenge thriller that never offers its heroine a shot of revenge, Nina Wu eschews the grimy aesthetic associated with such films for a polished sheen that echoes the high society world it takes place in. DOP Florian Zinke's camera glides along with Nina as she traverses the corridors of upmarket hotels and sprawling film sets, and clever in-camera switcheroos of the like seen in Altman's Images add to the sense that Nina is losing her identity as fiction, reality and dreams blur seamlessly into one. By the end you may feel compelled to start the movie from the beginning to look out for clues as to just what the real truth of the narrative is, but I suspect the answers won't come any easier.

Nina Wu
 is on MUBI UK/ROI from July 13th.

2021 movie reviews