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Nina Wu, the most recent psychological noir from the Taiwanese director Midi Z, is a stylish but frustrating depiction of sexual abuse in the film industry. The actress Wu Ke-Xi plays Nina, a movie extra who accepts a lead role that requires frontal nudity, and has a nervous breakdown.
Wu wrote the film’s script out of an urge to contribute to the #metoo movement, but Z stresses that the film is “not only about #metoo.” Although recent films – Carolina Moscoso’s Night Shot, for example – show that it’s possible to take on the subject in a nuanced and formally vigorous way, the duo’s comments reveal how quickly the #metoo label has come to denote a certain pandering to a simplistic desire for restitution. Such resistance to labeling is understandable, but in its desire to avoid cliches, Nina Wu skips over the more complex fallout of sexual trauma, while also subsuming it into a broader, looser exploration of the effects of PTSD.
This said, as an exercise in genre, Nina Wu can be darkly mesmerizing, mostly thanks to Florian Zinke’s supple cinematography and the film’s early infusion of a slightly surreal mood. When Nina deliberates if she should take the role, she glimpses a photograph of herself ascending the red carpet in a cobalt-blue gown; the same gown she’ll try on for the finished film’s premiere. The action is thus set in a suspended temporality, stressed by oneiric instances of déjà vu; for example: at one point, Nina meets other women all wearing the same red dress as hers. Her reality becomes increasingly splintered; a lizard’s skin sizzles under a hot lamp (magnified by the remarkable sound design), and later, the actor finds a cockroach in her coffee. The unbridled danger only grows when a beautician (who also auditioned but didn’t get the part) eventually attacks Nina, sending her running into the street, naked but for plastic wrapping. The scene chillingly meshes her psychosis with plausible threats in her professional life.
Beyond its haunting visuality, however, watching the film is like burrowing into a tunnel with no light at its end. A topically urgent mea culpa, Nina Wu stops short of lifting the veil on the collective complacency that surrounds sexual abuse in the industry, sidetracking from the nascent reckoning with how the ineffability of Nina’s coworkers allows her abuse to pass in plain sight — seen yet unacknowledged. All paths lead ineluctably backwards to her trauma, specifically the event just after her humiliating audition. Wu’s central conceit is Nina’s slow realization of what truly happened to her, yet it’s unclear how exactly Nina gains such piercing insight by plunging further into her disturbing visions that hinge on paranoia. Instead, the film culminates in a monstrous tableau that replaces the formal pliability of horror with the literalness of realism, without paying heed to the latter’s psychological demands. This conceptual contrivance lends Nina Wu its noirish intensity, but blunts its emotional edge.
Wu’s screenplay closes the temporal loop by locking Nina’s story and personhood entirely into a causal regression. It avoids a false sense of relief, which, in the same interview with Midi Z, Wu said she felt was inadequate, given how far the #metoo movement still has to go. But perhaps inadvertently, Nina Wu also sets up this hall of horrors as inescapable and crushing, leaving the viewer with a sense of hopelessness that undermines the film’s urgent quest for truth.
Nina Wu (2019), dir. Midi Z, is now streaming via the Museum of the Moving Image.