Nina Wu‘s early patience and promise unfortunately gives way to a more sensationalized, ill-conceived study of trauma.
Hailed as Taiwan’s answer to the #MeToo movement — a bizarre, flip cultural essentialism for its apparent belief in the historical discontinuity of art centered around accountability, exploitation, and women’s autonomy — Midi Z’s latest effort makes no bones about its prickly central concerns. Marking our, and the titular protagonist’s, soon-to-be abyssal descent with a frontal view of a subway train barrelling steadily down, we’re graced with a vision of Taipei denuded of any metropolitan glitz, substituted instead for its inhabitants’ pallid complexions and the lobotomized gait of a city in constant transit. Equally bare are the linings of Nina’s apartment, an abode the struggling, bit-part actress retires to by night; a space privately constituted but publicly unveiled to the scores of fans participating in her livestreams, and from whose tokens she earns a supplemental income. Her break comes in an invitation to audition for a “plum role,” a prominent feature as coveted as it is emotionally taxing, dicey and rife with lubricious demands. “What matters most is what you feel about it,” her agent assures her, only to reverse tack seconds later, doubting that any real professional would turn the role down “just because of nudity,” In this, Wu Ke-xi’s (starring as Nina) personal involvement in the film’s scripting process, alongside her harrowing run-in with directorial megalomania years before, is felt on a molecular level, her frankness in pinpointing the industry’s tawdriest centralities belying the pain and distress caused by them.
As Nina finds herself inescapably yoked to the world of prospective stardom and financial independence, Midi Z’s familiarity with nonfiction filmmaking asserts itself in sharper fashion. Disengaging from a narrative structure that prizes false catharsis and teleologic utility over irresolvable complication, he opts for a tabular study of the trials and indignities befalling Nina, removed from psychological and subjective insight. “No emotions involved, and pose for the camera,” we’re repeatedly told in a scene that sees her modeling various sex acts with two co-actors, any indictment of her working environment made clear in this wordless transmission. It’s unfortunate, then, that the main schism here — involving an on-set accident that produces in her a troubling hallucination (or memory) — acts as an about-turn from what’s been established, and instead proceeds in a slipstream of interior fabrication that the film is ill-equipped to handle. Nina survives her brush with death and, in the film’s most pointed critique, one which recalls Celeste’s mourning-dirge-turned-pop-single in Vox Lux, is reoriented to the land of the living via a clip of her near-drowning — now incorporated into the finished footage as dramatic punctuation. Before she can celebrate her newfound recognition and professional success from the film’s release, an inopportune phone call routes her back home, where her father has recently declared bankruptcy. Further, a meeting with an old flame inspires in her feelings of long-stymied passion, as well as the suspicion that a crazed woman is following her. This trifold predicament, however, only exposes the film’s prior failure to inculcate in Nina any form of vocal agency or lucidity in her actions and internal deliberations; Midi Z is instead content to allow Ke-xi’s performance to convey the inexpressible and the abject solely through its (admittedly effective) physical strain. As a means of conveniently and immediately exteriorizing untold inner turmoil, this approach somewhat works, but quickly falters when given the difficult task of building convincing depth out of such abstraction.
Nina’s departure from her hometown is then succeeded by the revelation (although the vast majority of viewers should pick up on it beforehand) of where her trauma originates, the crisis-point of the visual disturbances peppered throughout. So unfolds an assortment of dream-signs, individuated fragments, sonic cues, and motifs that coil around each other, merging in a palimpsest of half-remembered, half-repressed snippets, the margins of which some context finally appears in. While this should, in theory, amount to a sensitive and nuanced presentation of the manner in which trauma mars, replaces, and effaces memory, Midi Z shoots rather wrongheadedly for bombast and displacement. His approach renders the stylistic qualities of this subject manner starkly — qualities that, even if conditionally true to how victims process and recollect information, still register as embellished to the point of insensitivity, heavily contradicting the first act’s patient, exploratory development of perspective (or, less charitably, revealing it as a mere footnote to the film’s cynical co-opting of trauma as a structuring device). As its final shot glazes over into incoherence, it’s evident that even the best of intentions don’t correspond to an incisive, empathetic voice or well-considered articulation, and perhaps prestige drama, with the coefficient of thematic engagement and showmanship necessarily appended to it, isn’t the best format through which to tell these stories.