Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Ho Wi Ding, 2018)

Cities of last things poster 1A sense of finality defines the appropriately titled Cities of Last Things (幸福城市, Xìngfú Chéngshì), even as it works itself backwards from the darkness towards the light. Still more ironic, the Chinese title hints at “Happiness City” (neatly subverting Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “City of Sadness”) but that, it seems, is somewhere its hero has never quite felt himself to be. Embittered by a series of abandonments, betrayals, and impossibilities, he grows resentful of the brave new world in which old age has marooned him. 

Ho opens with a bouncy, retro track advising that one should never be too generous with love only for a body to suddenly rain down from above. As we later discover, the body belongs to 60-something former policeman Dong-ling (Jack Kao) who has grown disillusioned with his futuristic, digital world, stubbornly smoking cigarettes and growing old gracefully while surrounded by vapers and ads for rejuvenating drugs. For reasons we don’t yet understand, he ventures into the red light district to buy a gun, punches his wife’s dance partner, and visits a hard-nosed sex worker who reminds him of a woman he loved and lost thirty years previously.

Love, guns, death and revenge become persistent themes for the older Dong-ling whose only bright spot seems to be a grownup daughter preparing to move abroad with her foreign boyfriend. Thirty years previously Dong-ling (Lee Hong-chi) too dreamed of running overseas. Consumed with rage on discovering his wife’s infidelity, he imagines himself killing her, her lover, and himself but settles only for a petty revenge against a colleague which exposes the entrenched police corruption he had refused to participate in, alienating his fellow officers. Bonding with a French kleptomaniac (Louise Grinberg) on the run from some kind of unresolved conflict with her father, he sees a way out only to have the door cruelly closed on him just as it was so many years before when he was just a teenager picked up for trying to steal a scooter.

In true film noir style, all women are perhaps one woman. Abruptly shifting tone in venturing into the recent past, we are introduced to Big Sister Wang (Ding Ning) – an embittered, disappointed femme fatale running out of road, hemmed in by the choices she has already made. She may already know there’s no way out for her, little needing the policeman’s warning that after her arrest everyone in gangland will assume she talked when they let her go, but she refuses to give in, repeatedly insisting on cigarettes and asserting her dominance while the unsympathetic policemen get on with their grim business.

Cornered, Ara, the shoplifting free spirit, decides to interrogate her interrogator, calling back to the later version of herself in asking why it is that prostitution is illegal. The policeman has no answer for her, save that he does not make the rules only follow them. Dong-ling too wanted to be a force of order, perhaps taking Big Sister Wang’s impassioned pleas to be a good person and not end up like her a little too much to heart. He follows the rules too closely for the comfort of his colleagues but finds himself dangerously exposed by an inability to regulate his feelings, a victim of toxic masculinity humiliated by his wife’s betrayal but unable to stand up to the corrupt superior who so casually closes down the only escape route he has been able to find.

The older Dong-ling is horrified by his daughter’s revelation that she lasered away a birthmark. How else can you recognise someone you lost long ago in the great wide world other than by a mark placed on them when they were born? His daughter rolls her eyes and reminds him that these days everyone is chipped, but there may be something in his rationale that everyone is marked at birth. Dong-ling is surrounded by handcuffs, self-driving vehicles, and locked doors. His fate is sealed, as we know, because we saw him fall, yet like Big Sister Wang he fought back only his resistance was violent and vengeful, abhorrent in its enraged pettiness. His is a tale of fatalistic resentment and of an existence consumed by a sense of hopeless abandonment, coloured only by a longing for lost love. Ho’s decision to end the film with its happiest moment, bright sunshine in place of rain soaked night, is ironic in the extreme but returns us to the grim serenity of the opening as the cheerful retro strains re-echo and Dong-ling catapults himself into a life of misery in the cities of last things where all hope is futile and all love loss. 


Screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival, Cities of Last Things is also available to stream online via Netflix.

TIFF trailer (English subtitles)

Liu Wen-cheng – Don’t Be Too Generous About Love

The Scoundrels (狂徒, Hung Tzu-hsuan, 2018)

The Scoundrels posterTaiwanese cinema has, of late, been most closely associated with whimsical romantic comedies and maudlin melodrama but a return to action could very much be on the cards if The Scoundrels (狂徒, Kuáng Tú) is anything to go by. A tensely plotted neo-noir, the debut feature from Hung Tzu-Hsuan takes its cues from classic Hong Kong heroic bloodshed and contemporary Korean crime thrillers as its conflicted hero battles himself in other forms, unwittingly taking the fall for the “Raincoat Robber” all while trying to reclaim his sense of self approval.

Ruining himself through a senseless act of self destructive violence, Ray (J.C. Lin Cheng-Hsi) lost his top basketball career along with the fame and fortune that went with it and now makes a living on the fringes of the crime world tagging luxury cars with GPS trackers so the thugs can pick them up later. His life takes an abrupt turn for the worse when he is about to tag the car belonging to the elusive “Raincoat Robber” (Chris Wu Kang-Ren) who takes him hostage at gunpoint and gets him to call an ambulance for the injured woman (Nikki Hsieh Hsin-Ying) lying in the back before abandoning her on the roadside and driving off.

Despite his obvious fear, Ray finds himself warming to the strangely jovial criminal who perhaps reinforces his sense of being wronged by the world with his dubious philosophies. Ben, as he calls himself, tells him that society is to blame and he’s better off embracing his darker nature but Ray remains unconvinced. Despite an awareness of his bad qualities – his self destructive need for violence and propensity to make unwise decisions, Ray prefers not to think of himself as actively criminal and resents being lumped in with the Raincoat Robber even if the TV stations sometimes paint him as a kindly Robin Hood figure who only shoots people in the knees  and makes a point of stealing from those who can afford to lose.

Even so there is something in what he says in that Ray struggles to emerge from the labels which have been placed on him throughout his life. He wants to change his fate, but is uncertain how to do it. If everyone calls him a crazed and violent man, perhaps it’s a label he can’t help but live up to and if you can’t beat your programming perhaps it’s easier to give in and simply become what everyone assumes you to be.

The police, as a case in point, quickly decide Ray is guilty because of his previous crimes and reputation as a man of violence. The veteran cop (Jack Kao) who arrested him before is convinced that Ray is their man not because the evidence says so but because he has it in for him and is convinced that no one is ever really reformed. Only one more earnest cop (Shih Ming-Shuai) bothers to examine the evidence and give credence to Ray’s pleas, but in any case Ray is unlikely to trust the authorities when the authorities have so little trust in him despite the encouragement of his loyal girlfriend (Nana Lee Chien-na) who seems to think he really might be guilty but looks as if she might stand by him anyway.

Ray wants to change his fate, but to do it he’ll have to face himself in the form of Ben only Ben is quite the adversary and in some ways even more like himself than he might have guessed if more ruthless and (almost) completely amoral. The awkward bromance between the two begins to simmer as they dance around each other never quite sure who is going to betray whom and when though Hung is careful to keep the tension high and the door open for a more genuine kind of camaraderie.

Set against the rain drenched streets of Taiwan at night, The Scoundrels fully inhabits its murky noirish world of tiny back alleys and underground gambling dens existing underneath the gleaming spires and shiny high tech hospitals. The action is thick and fast but always realistic with a good deal of humour which even sees the fight in a tea house tradition honoured in true heroic bloodshed fashion while Ray scraps for his life literally and metaphorically. A tightly plotted thriller with true noir flair, Hung’s debut is an impressively assured affair which makes the most of its meagre budget to prove that action cinema is well and truly alive and kicking in contemporary Taiwan.


The Scoundrels was screened as part of the 2019 Udine Far East Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Yang Ya-che, 2017)

The Bold the corrupt and the beautiful posterAre you playing the game or is the game playing you? The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful (血觀音, Xuè Guānyīn) is, as its name suggests, somewhere between trashy soap opera and spaghetti western as its entirely amoral matriarch prepares to sacrifice everything in order to get ahead. The family becomes a metaphor for the state – corrupt, prejudicial, hypocritical, and often heartless in its ruthlessness but like a family a state perhaps reaps what it sows and the lessons Madame Tang has taught her daughters may come back to haunt her.

In the Taiwan of the 1980s – the dying days of the old regime but firmly within the pre-democratic past, Madame Tang (Kara Hui) is the widow of a general and, on the surface of things, an antiques dealer. Her real worth however lies in making herself the society face of genial corruption as the conveyor of the ancient treasures that often stand in for monetary bribes in the complex system of reciprocal politics. Designed to manoeuvre herself and her family into a position of power and perhaps safety, Madame Tang’s machinations amount to a mess of intrigue, manipulating the social interactions of her “friends” in order to convince them to destroy each other and clear a path for her ascendance. Part of her grand plan has involved extensive use of her daughter, Ning Ning (Wu Ke-xi) – now approaching middle-age and thoroughly sick of being her mother’s prize pony, while Chen-Chen (Vicky Chen), still a teenager, has usurped her place as the latest cute little thing to be trotted out and fussed over.

Everything starts to go wrong when a powerful neighbouring family, the Lins, is murdered in a suspicious looking home invasion leaving the daughter, Pien-Pien (Wen Chen-ling), who the closest thing Chen-Chen had to a real human friend, in a coma. Pien-Pien had been carrying on with Marco (Wu Shuwei) the stable boy which obviously had not gone down well with her parents though she had backed out of a plan to elope with him. The police’s theory is that Marco had come back to the family home and taken his revenge, but there is an awful lot more going here than just a jealous proletarian boyfriend hitting back at the bourgeoisie.

Piling layer upon layer Yang’s script is dense and sometimes impenetrable to those not well versed in Taiwanese history and culture. Madame Tang seems to have something of an interesting hidden backstory, swapping easily between standard Taiwanese Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese which she, and Chen-Chen, use to get close to Mrs. Lin whose grasp of Taiwanese remains poor despite having lived on the island for many years and being heavily involved in politics. The house the family inhabits is also distinctly Japanese in layout, a colonial era home now inhabited by post-war migrants from other areas of China. The Lins look down on their stable boy not only because of the obvious class difference, or because of their daughter’s relative youth and tarnished reputation, but because he is from a persecuted minority of native peoples.

Marco does however become a kind of key. Chen-Chen, curious and privy to more knowledge than a child of her age ought to have thanks to her mother’s scheming, has developed a fondness for the strapping stable boy and mildly resents being made fun of by the oddly amused Pien-Pien. The rot sets in as Chen-Chen is sent to fetch Ning-Ning only to find her engaging in some kind of orgy in a forest, over which Chen-Chen lingers a little to long only to catch Ning-Ning’s eye and find herself suddenly caught out while her “sister” apparently finds extra spice in her discomfort. Ning-Ning, after years of emotional abuse at the hands of her mother, has begun to rebel by embarrassing her, losing herself in drink, drugs, and promiscuous sex with unsuitable men while Madame Tang still harps on about possible dynastic marriages if now to a distinctly third class tier of potential husbands.

Yang adds a post-modern dimension to the story by framing it as a cautionary tale recounted by a pair of traditional musicians in the manner of Gezi Opera which begins closer to the now before flashing back to show us how we got here. Even if the political metaphors do not hit home without some kind of primer in Taiwanese history, the familial allegory is obvious enough – corruption breeds corruption and the hollow family will eventually swallow its young. The closing coda, presented via intertitles, reminds us that the scariest prospect is not imminent punishment, but a loveless future. The Tangs’ tragedy is not that there was no love between them, but that in their cynicism and insecurity they destroy themselves through a selfish need for control and possession. Madame Tang’s lessons have indeed been learned too well, and in this she damns herself as well as her daughters, condemning all to a loveless future fuelled by greed and fear from which it is impossible to escape.


The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful was screened as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018.

Original trailer (traditional Chinese subtitles only)

Interview with director Yang Ya-che from the 2017 Busan Film Festival (English subtitles)