At its core, the #MeToo movement has at least somewhat succeeded in exposing the degree to which corruption, misogyny, and exploitation make up the foundations of the entertainment industry. Whether the abuse materialized as sexual harassment, bullying, or even assault, what real checks on male Hollywood authority existed before the movement helped topple Harvey Weinstein in 2017? Premiering his scathing damnation of the movie industry at the very festival Weinstein was known to turn into his personal hunting ground, Taiwanese director Midi Z presents a thoroughly harrowing reminder of the devastation of unchecked power in his new film Nina Wu. While Midi Z’s structural and narrative design may lack an original punch, the uncomfortable sense that we’ve already seen its story before works surprisingly well to accentuate the unease and anger already evoked by its horrifying subject matter.
Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) is a middle-of-the-road but ambitious actress failing to find success in the Taiwanese film industry outside of commercials and a daily webcam show. When her agent contacts her about the starring role in a big-budget espionage blockbuster, she hesitantly agrees to audition despite being visibly uncomfortable with the graphic nudity required. The first half of this 103-minute film follows Nina as she auditions and lands the part, adopting a confusing narrative structure designed to obscure her reality with that of her character (think Inland Empire). The film borrows heavily from the 1997 anime-classic Perfect Blue (along with Darren Aronofsky‘s similar film Black Swan, whose equally-driven protagonist is also named Nina), providing her unreliable narration as our only guiding anchor to reality. Throughout this first act, Midi Z employs a series of hypnotic long takes over his young actress’s life, precise in their framing and anxiously understanding of her tragic fate.
In a way, Nina Wu is divided in half to show two prevalent sides of abuse in Hollywood. The first, in which we receive a front row seat to Nina’s stressful movie set, reflects a conveniently ignored truth about the manner in which certain filmmakers treat their actors and actresses. We are forced to watch as the director (a chilling Shih Ming-shuai) emotionally and physically torments Nina, yelling at her when he is displeased with her performance and slapping her to evoke the required negative emotions for a scene. His abhorrent behavior rings eerily close to that of other auteurs lauded within the film community such as Lars von Trier and the late Stanley Kubrick. Yet even more uneasy are the direct parallels to be made between the “director” and Quentin Tarantino, whose own negatively publicized incident on the Kill Bill set with Uma Thurman mirrors that of Nina almost killing herself in a dangerous stunt. The fact that the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood auteur reportedly attended a screening of the film at Cannes holds an especially sick irony.
After a stunningly calculated first half, Nina Wu somewhat derails in its second act, losing much of its compelling precision after its titular actress concludes the shooting of her movie. The film makes some questionable decisions around this point, including an unconvincing lesbian relationship and a deranged stalker subplot (its most direct allusion to Perfect Blue), but thankfully refocuses heading into its nauseating coda of a third act. A recurring flashback Nina has of a red dress and hotel hallway is finally allowed to play out, twice, offering two very different but equally chilling variations on the same story. Both scenes are revoltingly sadistic, and drive the brutality of the film markedly up.
Yet for all its explicit horror, Nina Wu’s lesson is never completely coherent- it refuses to place any outright blame on anyone for what happens to Nina, instead casting the entertainment business as a monstrous and uncaring leviathan comprised of many apathetic human parts. For better or worse, it also complicates its already unclear worldview by characterizing Nina with a naïve resolve to do whatever it takes to succeed, willingly opening herself up to exploitation by refusing to ever put her foot down.
While Nina Wu is certainly relentless in its portrayal of the repulsive abuse exhibited by far too many of the entertainment elite, it admittedly offers little that hasn’t already been said. Its structure and story are in fact so noticeably similar to Perfect Blue that it could almost be interpreted as a #MeToo-conscious remake. If nothing else, the film serves as a damning reminder that the 2017 movement hasn’t permanently or even completely eradicated abuse. A call for sustained vigilance, Nina Wu warns its audience that remaining ignorant of exploitation is a form of enabling; turning the other way when unpleasant behavior rears its ugly head is just as much to blame for its continuation as the perpetration itself.