For their sixth film collaboration, filmmaker Midi Z and actress Wu Ke-xi co-wrote the unsettling trajectory of Nina Wu, an aspiring actress who has thus far been confined to livestreams and marginal roles in short films. Just as soon as her peripherality is established, however, Nina (played by Wu) is presented with an opportunity to audition for a lead role in a feature film, one that requires full-frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes. Encouraged by her manager of six years, Nina appears to agree with the undeniable degree of opportunity that the audition affords, over and above her evident discomfort at the thought of having to perform the aforementioned, for just as quickly, a sequence connected with a simple cut shows Nina auditioning for the role in front of production staff, including the director and executive producer. The sequence succinctly concludes with a scene that reveals itself to be from the film-within-the-film, thereby confirming that Nina has indeed clinched the role, in part through the sheer intensity with which she delivers the lines “I can’t bear it any longer. I really can’t take it anymore. They’re not only destroying my body but my soul.” In the course of presenting her experiences of the production shoot and at the same time her family life as well as romantic past, which enigmatically come to fold into each other like one extended dream, the film not only ramps up the elliptical, the blurring of reality and performance, and Nina’s latent traumatised being glimpsed in these opening sequences but also increasingly explores — and exposes — the events that ultimately underwrite Nina’s mental and emotional unraveling triggered by the film-within-the-film.
Given this scenario, admittedly, it is difficult not to think about Perfect Blue (1997, Kon Satoshi) — and by extension, Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky) — as well as the giallo tropes to which they nod in the process of viewing Nina Wu. But rather than simply dismiss it as a second/third-rate iteration of these previous titles, which has been the primary reaction, it would be more productive to critically situate Nina Wu as a complement to them and consider what it brings to the table in its own way. For a start, despite the fact that all of these films chronicle a woman’s torment revolving around performance, media, and her embodied self within the intricate spaces between public and private, reality and perception, Nina Wu is significantly the first to have been at least co-written by a woman. Through Nina, Wu and Midi Z construct an emotionally taut and opaque character as she undergoes the process of playing the lead character in a feature film and experiences during and after the production what appears to be groundless terror, anxiety, and paranoia; in short, a complete agitation of body and mind. A striking note is Wu’s performance of Nina with a profound sense of rigidity from head to toe (including her hairstyle) that only heightens her opacity. Such frustrating opacity may partly account for the reductive reaction to the film overall, stemming as it does from the narrative structure that reveals how grounded in fact Nina’s agitation is only during the last third of the film and thereby preventing spectatorial empathy towards her until then. It is a risky narrative and structural decision on the part of Wu and Midi Z, but an interesting one nevertheless that helps to carve out its spot alongside Perfect Blue, Black Swan, and even Inland Empire (2006, David Lynch) in addressing (female) identity and subjectivity and media industries and also to powerfully capture the workings of trauma on identity and subjectivity.
On the one hand, such opacity results in the emotions that the characters clearly experience — above all those of Nina — unfortunately not reaching the viewer with the same force that grips the characters themselves. Moments such as noting a lizard inside a lamp at the moment of discussing the audition with her manager; nearly getting run over by a car after wrapping up a scene; seeing an insect on her hand after a particularly grueling scene and performance coaxed violently out of her by the director; and an interview with a bevy of journalists that turns sour when she is persistently asked about the sex scenes and nudity required for her role all induce terror-stricken responses in Nina yet have the deadening effect of seeming like overreactions for the viewer. For example, the confrontation between Nina and the heretofore unseen and absent Kiki is obviously soaked in heartbreak, particularly from Nina’s perspective, as Kiki is the one whom she calls but is never able to speak to and instead always gets her voicemail. But the emotion within Nina as well as that which ties the two women together remain confined to the screen and outside of the viewer’s reach. Could Nina be traumatised by unrequited love? But when temporal and spatial boundaries begin to collapse even more so for Nina and a mysterious woman appears in many of the spots where she finds herself, the viewer becomes positioned by the narrative to really question Nina’s headspace while ultimately relegating the Nina-Kiki subplot to the status of a MacGuffin.
On the other hand, depending on how open-minded the viewer is in terms of giving the film a chance, it finally unknots the source event that has birthed such emotional agitation in Nina: the audition. The audiovisual motifs of what sounds like coffee brewing, dogs and barking, a red dress, and glass breaking have been cues that the film has been dropping for the viewer to pick up regarding a trauma that Nina herself has been trying to repress all along; hence the emotional disconnect between Nina and the viewer, for Nina has been trying to disconnect herself from that trauma since its occurrence. Considered in this manner, the film becomes much more interesting, disturbing, and altogether powerful in addressing not only the gendered, sexualised, and abusive power dynamics that operate in media industries but also the traumas that they provoke. By the film’s end, the lines “I can’t bear it any longer. I really can’t take it anymore. They’re not only destroying my body but my soul” gain a sickening, literal thickness of meaning matched by the concluding shots.
Nina Wu is now in virtual cinemas and on demand & digital from Film Movement.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.