Taipei actress Nina Wu — played by screenwriter Wu Ke-Xi in a steel-jawed dagger of a performance — hasn’t landed a movie role in the six years since she’s trickled down to the big city from the rural farm town where she was raised. In lieu of acting gigs, she pays the bills by working as a cam girl from her drab apartment, but most of the time she’s just another face in the bustling crowds.
Then: A chance to stand out. Nina’s agent dangles an audition for a risqué part in an erotic spy thriller from a hot young director, and while the thirtysomething actress is hesitant about exposing herself on screen (and to the vulnerability that shooting those scenes would require from her), her shit-eating agent makes it clear that this is less of a choice than a crucible. “I doubt any real professional would turn down a role because of nudity,” he says with the arrogance of someone who’s strong-armed so many women that he’s lost sight of how transparent he sounds.
The worst part is that Nina hears it too. Once upon a time she may have been naive, but now she has to fool herself into thinking she doesn’t know what comes next. It isn’t long before “Nina Wu” convinces us that we don’t either, as Myanmar-born director Midi Z — weaponizing the hazy language of a psychological thriller to confront hard truths in this bold and challenging departure from more naturalistic migrant dramas like “The Road to Mandalay” — pulls his muse towards uncertain territory.
Nina’s audition doesn’t appear to go well, as the sociopathic director of the film-within-a-film (Shih Ming-shuai) coldly draws a big “X” through the actress’ headshot in the middle of her reading. But the next thing we know, Nina is stumbling through an elaborate shot and giving the performance of her life even if it kills her. And there are any number of ways that it might. Nina’s abusive director treats her like a glorified prop, and nobody on the crew so much as bats an eye after a runaway car speeds across set and nearly flattens the movie’s star.
When a boat scene goes explosively wrong and leaves Nina sinking towards the bottom of the sea (her open eyes and sheet-white skin evoking the rueful ghosts of Japanese horror films), Midi Z appears to be on the verge of a full-blown #MeToo revenge saga inspired by the anger that Wu Ke-Xi’s carries from her own mistreatment in the Taiwanese film industry.
Alas, while Wu’s script does indeed draw from the pain of personal experience, there is no catharsis to be found in the cold waters of “Nina Wu.” Here, the same genre tropes that are ordinarily primed for cheap thrills and big twists are bent towards the opposite effect, as the film blurs the line between reality and delusion in order to make audiences question a trauma so disorientingly awful that it might otherwise be easy to dismiss altogether — even for the people who suffer it first-hand.
“Nina Wu” doesn’t follow the arc of a plot so much as it does the tone of a line reading. We never learn all that much about the glitzy spy movie Nina is making — some nonsense about espionage and three-ways that’s shot with the kind of slasher-vision POV that makes the camera seem like it’s stalking her — but we become intimately familiar with one key bit of dialogue from it: “They’re not only destroying my body, they’re destroying my soul!” The first time we hear Nina read those words is during her audition, when they sound canned and hammy. The emotion grows more urgent and honest with every subsequent take, as Nina’s talents as an actress blossom in horrifying tandem with the truth of what she’s shouting.
That line feels like a hostage note that Nina is slipping to us through a crack in the fourth wall, piercing the antiseptic veneer of a movie that knowingly splits the difference between Fincher-esque clinicality and Cronenbergian disquiet. Midi Z is a rabid cinephile who’s never been shy about his influences, but the most crucial reference points here are even more obvious, as Nina mentions working as an extra on Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” relates a dream about holding onto a tree branch as she watched Nicole Kidman drown, and struggles to repress a memory involving a certain hotel room with ties to Harvey Weinstein.
There’s something discomfortingly fatalistic about how Nina is surrounded by and conversant with the symbols of her own suffering, yet remains powerless to avoid them. If the movie grows slack across a second half that detours back to Nina’s hometown, over-thickens her story with another layer of oppression (this one involving a childhood friend who’s weirdly obsessed with “The Little Prince”), and clumsily spirals deeper into psycho-horror on its way to burrowing out into the harsh reality of it all on the other side, it’s never less than riveting to see Nina wrestle with her agency.
Whatever retribution Wu has surely earned from her off-screen pain, the story that poured out of her when she learned about Weinstein’s sordid history couldn’t be less interested in personal grievance. Leaning closer towards the psychic dissolution of “Mulholland Dr.” than it does to the candied score-settling of “Promising Young Woman,” “Nina Wu” eschews the simple dynamics of victimhood in order to examine the sickening vertigo of semi-forced complicity. Some might flinch at the role Nina seems to play in her own debasement, and most will be left queasy by how mercilessly the film saps away her strength, but Midi Z has always been attuned to the cruelty of forcing migrant populations to act against their own interests, and “Nina Wu” becomes such a searing indictment of systemic exploitation in the entertainment industry because it takes that idea to its most literal conclusion.
“Nina Wu” is now available via virtual cinema from the Museum of the Moving Image.