“I can’t take it anymore. They’re not only destroying my body but my soul.” That’s the scripted line that Nina Wu, the main character who gives the film its name, rehearses to pass the audition. And she plays the same scene over and over again throughout the film just to perfect it. Nina Wu is a film about making a film, which breaks the fourth fall. Particularly, the close-ups on her face strategically placed eradicate the screen barrier or the fourth wall between the audience and Nina. As we watch Nina Wu implore the audience to see her constant challenges as an aspiring actress in a male-dominated entertainment world, we are tricked into the world of the delusions that originate in the roots of the film industry.
Directed by Midi Z and co-written by Midi Z and Ke-Xi Wu, who also stars as Nina Wu, the art-house film focuses on a young woman, an aspiring actress dreaming of becoming a worldwide-known actress. On her way to becoming one, she feels ready (or forced to feel that way) to bear whatever it requires to be a celebrity, which eventually breaks her apart. While writing the Nina Wu-script, Ke-Xi Wu was particularly inspired by the MeToo Movement and her own experiences. And she wanted to draw attention to the physical and mental challenges that actresses undergo in the film industry. So, Nina Wu opens up a world that draws on the MeToo movement to showcase the brutality of the entertainment world. Even better, it builds upon the social movement by offering a world filled with reality and hallucinations as a side-effect of the tormented individuality of the actress.
What was the MeToo Movement?
MeToo was a social movement that encouraged women to publicize their own experiences of sexual abuse and harassment. The American social activist Tarana Burke initiated this movement in 2006 by using the phrase “Me Too” on the social media, Myspace. It grew and gained momentum as more acclaimed actresses started to be more expressive about their experiences with sexual harassment. This movement strengthened the solidarity and empathy spreading internationally.
In 2017, sexual abuse allegations were directed at the infamous Harvey Weinstein. MeToo catapulted Burke into an international icon who inspired union among sexually abused and harassed women.
Taiwan’s MeToo Movement
In 2017, the #MeToo movement evoked lots of attention in Taiwan; many women broke their silence and raised their voices against sexual abuse. However, compared to other countries, it was a much smaller scale. Only until 2020, when one particular event edited the MeToo movement in Taiwanese terms.
In 2020, on July 3, a 29-year-old woman committed suicide by jumping off the top of the New Taipei Health Department after being exposed to sexual harassment by her supervisor. According to taiwannews, Taiwanese lawmakers have launched a “Me Too” movement on social media after this event. The aim was to raise awareness about the societal pressure endured by victims of sexual abuse.
This led to the Taiwanese version of the MeToo movement; people posted selfies with one hand covering their mouths. As the Taiwanese authorities point out, it is very common that people in superior positions, including teachers and supervisors, are perpetrators in most cases.
What is Nina Wu all about?
At the beginning of the film, Nina Wu introduces us to an ordinary woman who comes home after work and cooks dumplings. Then, she gets dressed and puts make-up on. And she starts live streaming, for which her fans pay Nina, while eating her dumplings. The streaming gets interrupted when she gets a call from her agent, who finally finds her first role in a feature film. The movie Romance of the Spies seems to be the role to pave the way for Nina’s stardom.
Born in the countryside, Nina comes to Taipei to become a star. She gets only minor parts, in the beginning, until Romance of the Spies. While feeling convinced that she has finally broken through the barriers, she faces the darkest side of the film industry as the director starts bullying her to make her give the best performance.
As the film progresses, she visits her hometown, where she finds herself in the middle of a familial conflict. Nina Wu’s father owes a large amount of money. Also, she sees her ex-girlfriend playing in a child’s play, Little Prince. Something she used to do once before becoming a celebrity. Coming back to her town makes everything worse; she starts having nightmares. Eventually, Nina’s delusional visions get mixed up with her reality. After that point, the audience also struggles to keep track of what is real or not.
Nina Wu was inspired by the #MeToo Movement
This part contains spoilers.
First of all, Nina Wu reflects upon the relationship between an aspiring artist and an abusive and manipulative director, who physically and emotionally tortures Nina Wu to make sure she projects her desperateness and helplessness in her voice and every gesture. For instance, he slaps and chocks her to get the best out of her, even sometimes by putting her life at stake. For instance, as they shoot the film’s last scene, something else goes wrong. Something on the boat explodes; she saves herself by diving into the water at the last second. We see her descending into the water with her head bleeding; no crew member is there to help Nina. In another case, she is almost run over by a car, which goes unnoticed by the crew.
More, the only food she has during breaks is just some dumplings cooked in steam and brought to her room. She is quite isolated. Her agent realizes they are not treating her nicely, but she refuses with an argument that everybody has to serve themselves while she gets her meal served. However, the agent is not really different than the cruel director. Even though she is hesitant to accept the role because this spy thriller involves explicit scenes of nudity, her agent persuades her, arguing that this role will bring her stardom that she has been chasing for years.
However, it comes at a high cost for Nina; she starts losing her grasp of reality and becoming paranoid and can’t sleep without having nightmares where a woman in a red dress chases her and tries to kill her. She also sees a hotel room: 1408. At the end of the film, we learn what happens in room 1408, which she has kept dreaming about. 1408 alludes to the film by Harvey Weinstein’s company that Z has seen, who says: “It metaphorically related to the women who have been sexually harassed in the hotel room. So we decided to change the room number from 2816 to 1408.”
How does Nine Wu “show” pain?
First of all, the long takes allow us to synchronize our bodies with Nina with the help of the camera’s agency. Also, the hegemony of the camera as an invader is on Nina with close-ups and targeting not only her body but also her every gesture and feelings of helplessness. Secondly, Nina’s nightmares that show us her anxieties and fears are flooded with the color red, “emphasizing Nina’s fear and trepidation.”
The character Nina plays actually matches what she has been going through during her acting. The shootings not only destroy her body but also her soul. In Nina Wu and Romance of the Spies, Nina portrays the female pain and body as vessels that the film industry exploits for more pleasurable voyeurism.
Who is Wu Ke-Xi?
Born in 1983 in Taipei, Wu’s career is very much intertwined with Midi Z because she starred in most of his films. Their latest collaboration, Nina Wu, is mainly based on Wu’s own experiences and the MeToo movement’s influence. Particularly, women’s speeches were very inspirational for Wu to write about Girl #3 and Nina Wu: “After 2017, after the year the Harvey Weinstein stuff occurred, I read a lot of documents and interviews. I was so purely curious about what happened,” said Wu.
In an interview, she also reveals how she was slapped in the face early in her career: “So they started bullying me too. After that experience, I went home for two weeks; I had flashbacks of being slapped in the face.” And she continues, “I had nightmares, and the director’s voice was in my head all the time. I would experience this humiliation over and over again. And I would open the fridge to get something, but I wasn’t there. I was on the set getting slapped and wanted to cry all the time.”
Who is Midi Z?
Myanmar-born and Taiwan-based director Midi Z has recently been rising in the world of cinema. As a kid, he didn’t have an easy or comfortable life. His mom ran a noodle shop, whereas his father was a doctor who kept getting sick. His other relatives were into illegal activities; he sometimes got a role in them. His mother and sister helped him to get a visa so that he could go to Taiwan and save himself. It was almost impossible to get one at that time, and it would cost a lot. It was even possible to buy a house for the same amount back then. Luckily, things went smoothly; he got a scholarship from a high school in Taiwan. As he reveals in an interview, his main intention was to earn money and send it to his parents back at home. Moving to Taiwan changed his life drastically.
Since his childhood, he has always watched films while eating whatever is in his lunchbox, which left a lasting impact on him. Yet, Midi Z’s relationship with the camera started when his friend gave money to him to buy a camera to record his wedding. Then, he started to make wedding videos only for commercial reasons.
Midi Z’s filmography and style
Midi Z’s Ice Poison, Return to Burma, Poor Folk, The Road to Mandalay, and Nina Wu are slow cinema shots with passive camerawork, as he uses it only as a recording eye. In other words, his camera objectively filters characters without judging them and offering an intimate portrayal of them. His characters are marginal characters that belong to the underground world, e.g., smugglers getting by with human and drug trafficking. And he can’t refrain from thinking he could be one of them if he stayed in Myanmar: “I have to say that if I didn’t come to Taiwan, I could have been a gangster, a drug dealer, or a minority in the army. I did plan to work with my friends and relatives [to sell drugs] when I was 14 after graduating from junior high school.”
What is more, Midi Z chooses to work with non-professional actors, focusing on real experiences, furthering the lineage of Italian neorealism: “Their faces tell a lot of stories. Before I begin to shoot, I spend a lot of time talking to them or listening to their life stories. Many are very lonely, and they need someone to listen to their stories. That’s how my auditions are.” He mostly improvises with them, adopting a documentary style, with minimal intervention. Lastly, Midi Z never tries to sew happy endings that would probably seem fairy-tale-like. At least in the world of immigrants facing the harsh conditions of poverty.
Ice Poison (2014)
Ice Poison takes place on the city’s outskirts in Myanmar and follows A-Hong and his father working on a farm. They barely get by due to the low crop prices. Thus, the son tries his best to get out of the poverty they are drowning in and seeks other jobs. And his path crosses with San-Mei, who was forced to marry an older man in China. Like A-Hong, San-Mei needs to find a job, yet is constantly challenged by the difficulties of getting one. Hong and San-Mei soon start a friendship, finding comfort in this relationship as they also cope with their addiction problems.
The film deals with the common problems of people in the geography of Myanmar. It also reflects upon Asian politics and the hardships of getting a visa. His films can be considered in line with Tsai-Ling Ming’s films that dwell upon the lives of migrants. Both employ passive camera shooting, as the camera records what is out there without any manipulation and intervention. Ice Poison premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival won Midi Z the Best Film award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It also earned Z the Best Director Award at the Taipei Film Festival.
The Road to Mandalay ( 2016)
Z’s The Road to Mandalay follows two characters. One is a young Burmese girl, Lien Ching (Wu Ke-Xi), who flees to Bangkok, Thailand, with the help of the smugglers. She hopes to find a better living standard and meets a Burmese boy, A-Kuo, who has a crush on her. Since she doesn’t have official documentation and identification, things don’t go smoothly. She can’t find a legitimate job; Thai authorities arrest her due to her illegal status. From now on, she feels resolved to obtain legal documents. Still, nothing goes well, which forces her to accept a drug dealer’s help, asking for a huge amount of money in return. That also drives her life into another dead-end.
The film premiered at the 73rd edition of the Venice Film Festival.
Nina Wu, in the words of Z
In terms of style, Nina Wu deviates from his previous films. However, it shares a common theme: migration: Nina Wu comes to Taipei to become a star. Half of the film is improvised like his previous films, which are mostly unscripted. In relation to Nina Wu, Z says:
“I’m aiming for a new cinematic language. We actually did shoot with lots of coverage, dollies, and cranes. But I cut out a lot of that in the editing room. There is an eight-minute take, but it is not simply visually long. Every frame has drama. I promise this is not just a boring art-house movie.”
Cultural Significance of the MeToo Movement and Nina Wu
Midi Z’s and Ku Xe-Wi’s collaborative project, Nina Wu, is a Taiwanese take-on to claim agency against sexual abuse and the male-dominated film industry. It expands the vocabulary of the MeToo movement while contributing to the psychological thriller genre and encoding a visual memory. To put it differently, in more general terms, film memory is important to look back and understand the past, what we have struggled for, and how far we have come. Films like Nina Wu play a significant part in this process, allying with the MeToo movement and alluding to the Harvey Weinstein scandal.