'Nina Wu': Film Review | Cannes 2019
Myanmar-born filmmaker Midi Z's latest movie is an unflinching portrait of a struggling actress living in Taipei.
One of the very few filmmakers from Myanmar/Burma to have found a degree of recognition on the international festival map, Midi Z, in films like Return to Burma, Ice Poison and the 2016 The Road to Mandalay, has customarily focused on the hardships facing poor people in their struggle to escape dire conditions both political and financial. Long based in Taiwan, the director this time takes aim at the exploitation of aspiring actresses by producers in a story co-written with his frequent leading lady, Wu Ke-xi. It’s not a pretty picture, nor is it entirely clear how to take what’s up on the screen, which both clearly conveys the essence of the problem and may, by some, be perceived as being uncomfortably close to the problem itself. The film’s character and effect on the audience are tricky propositions.
There can be little doubt that Wu herself was the driving force behind telling this story, which has the air of an exposé; everything about it speaks of wrenching personal experience. At the outset, Nina Wu (Wu) has been living in Taipei for eight years, working in a restaurant, getting the occasional bit part and struggling under the dubious guidance of her manager. She’s not getting any younger and she appears to have no personal life; major depression looms.
Suddenly a shot at a big role materializes, but there’s a caveat, and a predictable one: It requires major amounts of nudity and raw sex scenes. Her agent politely advises that she do nothing that makes her uncomfortable; on the other hand, this could be her big break, so she might want to consider it.
The pic then makes odd turns and time leaps that are neither entirely clear narratively nor satisfactorily explore her thinking or feelings. Instead of being drawn close to Nina, the viewer is pushed away by her aloofness, her evident decision that, to do what’s required to be a star, she must behave with “no emotions involved,” befitting the glamorous guise of her presumed new stature.
Interludes with her ailing mother and financially reckless father oddly feel like time-consuming filler that only further stresses Nina out and don’t have much impact.
That certainly can’t be said for what comes next, which are very queasy “audition” scenes of a fat-cat producer ushering several identically dressed young women, including Nina, into his hotel room and making progressively gross and sexually humiliating demands of them, all in the cause of their possibly winning roles in a film. It gets pretty nasty, especially after he gives the finalists drugs which make them incapable of resisting when he moves to take sexual advantage of them. "Loathsome," "gross" and "criminal" are just three of the many words that come to mind to describe what he does to the inert young women.
The intent on the part of Wu and Midi Z is unquestionably to inflame the viewer by unflinchingly showing what some young women have to go through to get anywhere in show business. And it’s obvious that the central desire of the co-writer and star is to vividly present Nina’s humiliation, disgrace and pain in order to plainly communicate what untold numbers of women have gone through to get somewhere in show business. It’s a ferocious, driven performance.
And yet, there’s something so blunt and impassive about the way it’s all presented — almost like something seen via a surveillance camera — that it creates a sense of viewer trespass, of something illicit that could also be said to have a voyeuristic aspect. You don’t really want to be watching what’s happening. Of course it’s meant as an explicit exposé, but the borders between what’s being shown and how it could be viewed by some people is disconcertingly blurry. The film may have needed a stronger directorial hand to guide it through such treacherous terrain.
Some will say that Nina Wu is a courageous work for exposing the abuse powerless young actresses face when trying to break into an acting career, while others will no doubt feel that, by what it shows, the movie remains part of the problem. As unevenly presented here, it’s a wobbly tightrope.
Production companies: Seashore Image, Harvest 9 Road Entertainment
With: Wu Ke-xi, Sung Yu-hua, Hsia Yu-chiao, Shih Ming-shuai
Director: Midi Z
Screenwriters: Wu Ke-xi, Midi Z
Director of photography: Florian J.E. Zinke
Production designer: Kuo Chih-da
Editors: Matthieu Laclau, Tsai Yann-shan
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)