'Nina Wu': Gripping psychological drama for the #MeToo era

This aspiring actress is gunning for a role in a big film.

  • Movie Review
  • Friday, 01 Nov 2019

Nina Wu

Director: Midi Z

Cast: Wu Ke-xi, Vivian Sung, Kimi Hsia

How far would you go to get a good performance?

In the 1963 movie The Birds, there are many scenes where the lead actress, Tippi Hedren, is attacked by birds. Director Alfred Hitchcock told Hedren they would be using mechanical birds to shoot the scene. Hitchcock however, decided to use real birds, and Hedren was pecked and bloodied so much she had to go to the hospital.

The story sounds horrible now, but directors do sometimes use intense methods to get “authentic” performances. And one of the themes of Taiwanese psychological thriller film Nina Wu is how this can sometimes lead to exploitation. The director-actor relationship, after all, is quite unbalanced: actors are at a director’s command, and often will do anything to satisfy them.

Nina Wu is the story of – surprise, surprise – Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi), an aspiring actress whose career is going nowhere. She spends her days appealing to lonely men as an Internet streamer, as well as acting in a very emotionally charged version of the children’s theatre play The Little Prince.

One day, she finally gets her big break – she is called to audition for a major period film.

The role, however, requires nudity and sex scenes. She is understandably reluctant, but her agent tells her it will be her big break, and Nina decides to accept.

Some dark turns happen during the audition, but Nina eventually gets the part. That is where her horror truly begins.

The director is mentally and emotionally abusive to her, and Nina hurts herself during some very intense stunts. All this starts taking a toll on her, that she starts having visions, including of a mysterious girl (Kimi Hsia) who has links to her past.

Is someone out to get her? Or is this all in her head?

Hold on! This sounds a little like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. And in some cases, Nina Wu does feel a lot like it. Especially since both of these films have their main character named Nina. Tribute or coincidence? It’s not easy to say.

Nina Wu, made by Burmese director Midi Z, feels very timely.

Its story of actresses being exploited recalls a lot of the stories of the #Metoo movement, with many prominent men in the entertainment industry being exposed as sexual predators by women coming forward.

This film’s script was written by both Midi Z and main actress Wu, who reputedly based a lot of the story on her own experiences.

The film can feel slightly confusing, as the story is not told in a linear way – viewers only get the full information towards the end. However, Nina Wu is very watchable, and sometimes, even quite gripping.

Wu, in particular, does a great job as the lead character, managing to portray her as both vulnerable and resolute. Some of the film’s twists are quite dark, but this is necessary as a reminder of the twisted things that can go on behind the closed doors of the entertainment industry.

The film is also shot well. Climactic scenes are highlighted with intense red lighting, which really adds to the tension and the whole “red light district” nature of some of the acts. And while some of Nina Wu’s plot elements are quite hardcore, we never quite see them unfold – so don’t worry, there’s nothing very explicit about this film.

Nina Wu does have a few flaws. While its main plot is very interesting, the same can’t be said about the side plots.

The lead character has to face a LOT of things throughout the story, including her father’s business failing, and her relationship with fellow actress Kiki (Vivian Sung). All these feel only tangentially connected with the main plot and mostly there to fill up time.

The film’s nature also seems to contradict its message a little bit. Part of the appeal of Nina Wu is working out if the things experienced by the lead character are actually happening, or are all in her head. That is the goal of every psychological thriller. But the essence of the #Metoo movement is to believe victim’s stories. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the story is framed this way.

Nina Wu also feels like it ends just as it was really getting good – it finishes as Nina comes to a revelation. It would have been really interesting to see what happens after that. Thematically, it makes sense, but it might have been nice to know a little more. Perhaps a sequel in future, hopefully?

Overall, Nina Wu can feel a bit muddled sometimes, but is definitely worth checking out. It’s well shot, has good performances, and its story will keep you guessing.

And perhaps it will give you an appreciation for all the things actors go through when making a big movie!

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A mindbending madness that you'd want to get into.

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