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‘Nina Wu’ Furiously Rips Through Conventions to Deliver an Urgent Call for Action

17 February 2020

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‘Nina Wu’ Furiously Rips Through Conventions to Deliver an Urgent Call for Action

A bit-part actress’ sanity is pushed to its limit, thanks to the trauma she endures after scoring a hard-earned lead role.

Director: Midi Z

Cast: Wu Ke-xi, Vivian Sung, Kimi Hsia, Shih Ming-shuai

Year: 2019

Country: Taiwan

Language: Mandarin

Runtime: 102 minutes


At a talk session during last year’s Singapore International Film Festival, director Midi Z asked audiences not to associate Nina Wu 灼人秘密 with the #MeToo movement before watching the film. “Because if you do, you will be disappointed,” he said. 

However, with its sole focus on the mental breakdown of an actress due to the unsettling abuse she goes through, how is it possible not to associate the film with the movement? Besides, I wasn’t disappointed as much as I felt like I was interrogated. Nina Wu is brazenly confrontational, stabbing at the canvas with unstoppable manic energy. 

While it definitely succeeds in riling up anger at the ever-appalling reality of being an actress in showbiz, I felt that it achieved this through emotional cheap shots, veering to the extremes of its exploration just because. Nevertheless, Nina Wu is a challenging and necessary affair, presenting a litmus test of where the audience stands with the #MeToo movement through a powerful leading performance and an artful dose of surrealism.

Nina Wu sees its titular character embark on her first large-scale movie production – the big break she has been looking for after spending years working small films and commercials. Her only point of hesitation comes from the film’s ask of her to perform in explicit sex scenes involving full frontal nudity. Still, she soldiers on even as she starts losing grasp of reality.

The key motif behind the film is exactly this interplay between reality and hallucinations, fully immersing the audience into Nina’s (Wu Ke-xi) world. With this storytelling style, it allows the film to divulge truly spectacular shots and editing techniques that are as enthralling as they are thrillingly befuddling. 

Thriving in this surrealist world is Ke-xi’s powerhouse performance in the lead. She presents Nina as a woman packed with courage and determination but broken down by institutionalised forces that are far beyond her control. Each slip into fantasy with her ailing psyche cuts deep,  forcing anyone watching to confront its lead’s emotional trauma in its naked entirety. 

Yet, I felt that this same style of storytelling can wear out its welcome. Reality criss-cuts with illusion frequently, throwing viewers into a whirlwind that they might not know how to attach to; why cling onto anything if the film never does so? Especially when there is only so much emotional weight that can be barraged at the audience before empathy becomes apathy. 

The film tries to woo the audience back midway through with the introduction of a villain played by Kimi Hsia – an ominous figure that haunts Nina in both her dreams and her waking moments. While her motive is somewhat understandable, the acts she commit to Nina are straight out of a slasher film; it is here where the narrative got over-the-top for me, losing a part of the urgency the film has been working towards. 

It is in its third act where Nina Wu reveals its hand: even if the lead is losing her senses, will you – the audience – believe what happened to her? The film places itself in an incredibly difficult position that its writing and narrative fell short of keeping up with. I felt it would’ve been better if the film arrived at this final question more by what it presented to us and less by our own preconceived opinions on the subject.

Where the film does shine, however, is in its technical aspects. Shots and patient pans swagger with style as they catwalk down the cold, dingy world of Nina Wu. The camera carries along an unsettling foreboding intensity as it unhurriedly stalks Nina around. Caught between reality and fantasy, there are far too many creative and imaginative shots and edits to list. 

Trembling along in the background is the film’s superb sound design. With a strong tinge of industrial music, scenes are punctuated by twinging sounds of metal on metal and roof-shaking rumbles. While they never truly have a voice of their own, when taken together these technical high points do fully complement anything and everything that the narrative demands of them. 

Issues that the #MeToo movement looks to dissipate can be far from the black and white affairs they tend to be portrayed as – I feel that this is exactly why we need films like Nina Wu to nuance discussions and ideas. We need more of its courage to place itself in the eye of the storm. We need more of its fearlessness to go straight for the jugular in conveying the anguish and trauma of a victim. While its narrative and overall messaging ultimately do fall short, it makes up for them with its ambition, technical virtuosity, and burning urgency. 

Catch the psychological thriller in Shaw Theatres starting 20 February.

Watch the trailer below:

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.