Directed by Midi Z (The Road to Mandalay), Nina Wu is a singularly frightening and discombobulating experience. Though its narrative is straight-forward and relatively easy to follow, the film goes to great lengths to stress out its viewers, leaving a blur of confusion and terror in its wake. Based on the entertainment industry’s long history of abuse against women—especially the experiences of Wu Ke-Xi, the film’s star and main screenwriter—the film dramatizes this horror by embracing a nightmarish, surreal style that threatens the clean distinctions between dreams, movies, and reality.
If you’re reading this and thinking of David Lynch‘s Mulholland Drive, you’re not alone. While Nina Wu feels more personal and pointed than Lynch‘s masterpiece (its distinctive status in post-Weinstein Hollywood has become a key contextual point of discussion for Wu and Midi Z), its superficial narrative and stylistic scenario feel like a guiding light for this new story. With a central romance between two women, a last-minute narrative reversal, and a scathing critique of Hollywood culture, Nina Wu draws on a rich and powerful lineage of surrealistic filmmaking.
It’s a bumpy, sometimes convoluted ride to get there, but by the time the film reaches its final punch, the flaws are overcome through pure, gut-wrenching despair.
The Role of a Lifetime
Nina Wu (Wu Ke-Xi) is an aspiring actress, working and striving to achieve a level of fame that has eluded her until now. She performed in a theater troupe in her hometown, but since her move to Taipei, she has spent her time working as an online star with a very small and devoted group of fans. One day, she’s offered the chance to audition for a starring role—a significant part in a major motion picture that could vault her to superstardom in China and around the world. It’s the role of a lifetime, but it comes with a major catch: it requires nudity. Nina initially expresses some hesitation, but soon enough, she seizes the opportunity.
Even after a seriously unnerving audition that seems disastrous, Nina wins the part—she has a chance to prove herself on the biggest stage. Unfortunately, the experience isn’t quite what she imagined. The part is rigorous and intense, and Nina’s director (Shih Ming-Shuai) doesn’t seem to want to make this any easier. He inflicts all manner of torture and abuse on Nina, pushing her to limits in the name of making a better film. It’s a grueling, nauseating experience to watch, yet Nina works under these awful conditions until the bitter end, even when a massive explosion stops the shoot in its tracks.
But just as her career appears to be ramping up at an incredible speed, Nina’s mental state is slightly crumbling. After the film’s wrap, Nina is forced to return home to deal with her mother’s illness and her father’s extensive debts, which are causing a multiplicity problems for her entire family. This homecoming provokes a reunion with Kiki (Sung Yu-Hua), Nina’s ex-girlfriend and a member of her former troupe. Nina still has feelings for Kiki, and the complicated fallout of their break-up is still playing out in real-time.
The Blurring of Reality and Nightmares
However, family and relationship drama might not even be the scariest part for Nina. She keeps having a recurring dream—at least it appears to be some kind of dream. She’s at a hotel for an audition, and she continues to see a single woman in the hallway. This dream’s repetition reaches more innovative forms until she keeps seeing this one woman (played by Hsia Yu-Chiao) everywhere. What does it all mean, and why does she keep returning to these images?
I tend to avoid reading anything before writing my own review, whether that be other reviews or press materials, simply out of a desire to avoid merely parroting opinions and view-points. In the case of Nina Wu, I think taking a glance at the press notes actually proved to be rather valuable, if only for the insightful background provided by actress/screenwriter Wu Ke-Xi. Her contextualization of her own experiences within the fictionalized narrative is fascinating, and her account of the abuse she suffered in the industry is as harrowing as the film itself. Similarly, Midi Z‘s description of the film’s aesthetic goals almost had the strange effect of justifying my own reaction—the general mood of uneasiness was far from accidental.
With the underlying threat of violence and terror infecting every scene, Nina Wu moves with its own narrative rhythm, often drifting between memories, dreams, performance, and real life. This style is unsettling, but it also has a metacinematic function that emerges early and remains fascinating throughout. One of the film’s most evocative shots sees a distressed Nina walking out of her audition, only for it to slowly be revealed that she’s actually on a film set. This steady, unpredictable pendulum and its continual shifts between the “real” world and something seemingly fictional is vital to the film’s power—it’s the key that leads to the ending.
Frightening Filmmaking Overcomes Choppy Narrative
If there’s a problem to be found in Nina Wu, it’s the film’s somewhat unexpected pivot to a more conventional narrative in its middle stretch. After an introduction that terrorizes primarily because of its subversion of convention—its avoidance of an overwhelming musical score, its blurry relationship between truth and cinema, and so on—Midi Z and Wu Ke-Xi introduce a number of more conventional obstacles and problems for Nina to overcome. The film never slips into anything uninteresting, but it feels like an unnecessary interruption of a narrative that is thriving on its uncomfortable, blunt depiction of horror and trauma.
Still, the film’s atmosphere is so intense and all-encompassing that it’s difficult to be too bothered by many of the problems. The sonic ambiance is essential, but the slow and distressing depiction of scenes unfolding in virtually empty space is even more critical. Midi Z imbues the entire film with an otherworldly, discomforting nature, which is countered by the fact that its violence is all too real. Whether it’s a movie, a dream, or blunt reality crashing in on Nina, it’s all fairly hard to watch. By the time the ultimate truth is revealed—culminating in a final shot that will remain in my brain for a long while—the film achieves a level of truth and horror that is undeniable.
Nina Wu: Conclusion
In the end, this is Wu Ke-Xi‘s film. Beyond writing the screenplay and providing the foundation for this paralyzing journey, Wu‘s performance is stunning, embodying Nina’s fear and uncertainty as she traverses this corrupted landscape. After reading her statement, it’s clear that she lived through much of this uncertainty and terror, which makes the entire film all the more powerful in retrospect. Small surface-level problems aside, this is a gripping tale, aided by a skillful filmmaker and an incredible performance. Its methods are surreal and dreamlike, but its final destination is painfully real.
What did you think of Nina Wu? Do you want to see more of these stories told in mainstream Hollywood? Let us know in the comments below!
Nina Wu was slated for a March release, but its release date is currently unknown.
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