Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏, Liang Zhefu, 1965)

Nothing is guaranteed to turn people against each other faster than hidden loot. So it is for the children of two wartime conscripts inheriting a dubious legacy from their departed fathers in the enticingly named Tarzan and the Treasure (泰山寶藏). The world was beginning to open up in 1965, but in cinema at least there was still space for the “mysterious East” even when seen from the relative proximity of Taiwan. 

A Taiwanese businessman travels to Macao in search of the missing half of a map said to lead to treasure hidden in the Malayan mountains by the Japanese at the end of the war. The man’s brother, Zheng, and the father of the man he’s supposed to meet, Fan, served together as conscripts to the Japanese army and agreed to tear the map in two because they were afraid that their descendants may try to do each other out of their shared inheritance. That proves truer than they could ever know seeing as they both died young. The businessman is shot dead by crooks including Fan’s son (Chin Tu) who planned to steal Zheng’s half of the map and get the treasure for himself, but thankfully he didn’t have it on him, leaving it with his niece Shufen (Liu Qing) for safekeeping. Fan’s son is also killed by his gangster boss who takes his leads about Shufen and her young cousin Hong-luk (Ba Ke) heading to Malaya and runs with them. 

Shufen meanwhile has been warned by a policeman from Macao that her uncle is dead and gangsters may be on her tail. Inspector Khoo tells her to go and wander around in the jungle as bait while he is supposedly going to protect her and her cousin. Hong-luk privately dreams of finding the treasure, but Shufen reminds him they’re here for “revenge” and to smoke out the gangsters, not to get rich. While in the jungle, however, they encounter many more dangers than the alien element of invading criminality. Despite being firmly set in the modern era, Shufen and her cousin repeatedly run into members of a primitive tribe, some of whom turn out to be predatory. A hero is, however, forever on the horizon and whenever Shufen finds herself shouting for help “Tarzan” (Gao Ming) swings out of the jungle to rescue her. 

Somewhat surprisingly, “Tarzan” speaks perfect Taiwanese but wears only a leopard print loincloth and a few bangles. He is apparently, and for obvious reasons, a popular guy but only has eyes for So-bi, his increasingly jealous girlfriend with an equally jealous sister constantly outraged on So-bi’s behalf. Tarzan never falls for the the “Jane” figure of Shufen standing in for urban sophistication but remains her protector, not only from the predatory members of his own tribe but from the gangsters too even as they bring unwelcome modernity in the form of guns into this idyllic paradise. 

As they said, Shufen and her cousin haven’t come to find the treasure, only to get justice and in the hope of figuring out what happened to Shufen’s father and brother who came to Malaya some years ago after Fan’s death made getting the second half of the map impossible. The treasure itself, unearned wealth with a less than ideal genesis, is the corrupting influence which has caused so much pain and suffering. Zheng may have given his life for it, his brother and Fan’s son were shot for it, and now amoral gangsters from Macao may make sure that Shufen pays for it too even though she seems to have no interest in striking it rich. The lesson seems to be that going off to foreign countries to pull dollars out of the hillsides is a meaningless and risky business. Shufen has the right idea in that she’s gone to Malaya to restore her family and if possible bring it home while paying her respects to her late uncle. 

Greed, romantic jealousy, and the dangers of the jungle, however, threaten her mission. Wise for his years, little Hong-luk is increasingly convinced they’ve been double-crossed and that “Inspector Khoo”, if that’s his real name, must be in league with the gangsters, having tricked them into coming into the mountains all alone without the promised police “protection” even while they’re supposedly acting as bait for vicious Macao gangsters. Rest assured, however, that the authorities are eventually vindicated while Shufen remains just as innocent as the guileless Tarzan but standing up to the forces of corruption as long as she is able. The “treasure” that she discovers is family unity, preparing to leave the exoticised “Eastern paradise” for the urban sophistication of “civilisation” in Taiwan, but taking something of Malaya with her as she goes.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

The Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽, Hsin Chi, 1969)

What could be more wholesome and comforting than a rice dumpling? To support their desperate family, a father and daughter become, unbeknownst to each other, Rice Dumpling Vendors (燒肉粽), hoping to buy back their innocence through honest work but secretly ashamed of the depths to which they’ve fallen. Rising economic prosperity has it seemed provoked a moral decline and resulted in an arrogant entitlement that allows wealthy men to assume they can do as they please, but one ordinary businessman is about to get an unexpected humbling when confronted by the consequences of his moral transgressions. 

Tsibing (Yang Ming) is outwardly successful. He dresses in suits, has a large house and chauffeur driven car, can afford to employ a nanny, and comes home to an elegant middle-class wife (Jin Mei) and three adorable children. Despite all of that, however, he’s about to ruin everything. His mistress is secretly part of a criminal gang. She gets her boyfriend to pretend to rob the place, knocking out Tsibing’s wife and undressing her, leaving a pair of underpants on the bed to make it look like her lover has thrown his clothes on in a hurry and jumped out of the French doors to avoid being caught out by Tsibing’s unexpected arrival. Tsibing doesn’t stop to ask questions. He rounds on his wife, beating her violently in front of their young son whom he also kicks in the ribs for trying to defend her. Hypocritically pointing out that his taking a mistress is no justification for her to take a lover a too, he throws her out of his house, only to be thrown out himself when he realises that his mistress has stolen all his money. Ruined and penniless he moves into a shack with the three kids and tries to keep things together while meditating on his mistakes. 

The Rice Dumpling Vendors is, somewhat unusually, a melodrama of male failure in which Tsibing experiences a humbling which pulls him away from the amoral capitalism of the post-war era towards humanistic compassion. The couple next-door, a balloon seller (Chin Tu) who dresses as a clown and his feisty wife (Siu Chu), were unable to have children of their own and quickly take to the young family, feeling sorry for Tsibing and often helping him out particularly with buying formula milk for the baby. “I always thought people were selfish” he confesses while lying on a hospital bed after sustaining a serious workplace injury, finally seeing a different, less materialistic way to live. 

As the closing song reminds us, however, you can’t do anything without money. Attempting to walk away from failure, Tsibing finds himself in an impossible position. He can’t find work that can support a family, and even once he finds a job he gets himself injured leaving him entirely unable to provide. Oldest daughter Hsiu-chuan (Dai Peishan) tries to take the burden on herself, selling lottery tickets and heading out at all hours to hawk rice dumplings to passersby in the streets, unconvincingly telling her father that she’s going to help a classmate who is sick in the hospital with their homework. Hsiu-chuan’s earnestness stands in complete contrast to her father’s increasing desperation compounded by guilt and regret. In a low moment, he even considers abandoning the baby in front of the house of a wealthy childless couple in the hope that they will adopt her.

Strangely, Tsibing never considers asking the childless couple from next-door who already dote on his children if they’d be willing to look after the baby, but determines straight on placing himself at the mercy of the wealthy. The couple at least seem nice – they want a child and would spoil it with both love and money, but they are also arch materialists. Their first thought is that they should give Tsibing money in compensation, as if they were buying a pet. It doesn’t quite occur to them that he might change his mind, after all they can give his baby a quality of life he currently cannot in which she’ll be well fed and taken care of. Is it selfish of him to deny her that? Hsiu-chuan and her brother, however, aren’t having any of it. They’re taking their sister home where she belongs, vowing to give up on school and double down on their part time jobs to make sure they can afford milk to feed her. 

Tsibing too lowers himself once again, selling not only lottery tickets but later rice dumplings, telling Hsiu-Chuan, who is doing exactly the same thing, that he’s got a job as a nightwatchman in a warehouse which is why he’s out all night. Humbled and encouraged by the warmhearted altruism of his kindly neighbours, he’s learning to renounce the materialist life and re-embrace what’s important. The mistress, meanwhile, making an unexpected reappearance, pays a heavy price both for her amoral materialism, and for her transgressions as an “immoral” woman whose attempts to use men provoke only jealousy and violence. Meanwhile, the wife is eventually vindicated and seems to have retained both her wealth and her class status even after being unfairly thrown out by Tsibing. 

What we’re presented with is a seemingly uncomplicated family reunion, completely ignoring Tsibing’s brutal use of violence against his wife and son which is itself intended to demonstrate his “manliness” and patriarchal authority. He reminds his wife of the cultural double standard that insists that a man may take a mistress but a wife must be faithful, punishing her not for betraying their family but for making a fool of him. Little does he know however that he’s already been made a fool of by a “wicked” woman, and it’s entirely his own fault for acting irresponsibly, regarding a mistress as little more than a status symbol. Nevertheless, now humbled he has a new appreciation for what it means to be a family man, seeking not riches but simple wholesome pleasures like rice dumplings and friendship surrounded by kind and honest people always willing to lend a hand to those in need.


Screened as part of touring retrospective Taiwan’s Lost Commercial Cinema

Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Lai Meng-jie, 2019)

“Teenage days we all need a romance that hurts” exclaims a rejected teen, too shy to declare her crush directly but trying to achieve a kind of closure by literally shouting it from the rooftops in Lai Meng-jie’s charming teenage rom-com, Stand By Me (陪你很久很久, Péi Nǐ Hěn Jiǔ Hěn Jiǔ). For Jiu-Bing (Mason Lee), however, his romance has gone on a little longer than just his teenage years. He’s been silently in love with Bo-he (Ivy Shao Yu-Wei) since he was 12, but their relationship has remained at the innocent level of childhood friendship. Nevertheless, all of his subsequent decisions have been taken with one aim in mind, being at Bo-he’s side to protect her. Now that they’re grown, he’ll have to come to terms with the fact that their relationship is inevitably going to have to change in one way or another. 

As with most youngsters, those changes arrive as they set off for university (he’s enrolled in the same one as her for that reason alone). No matter how close you are, it can be quite claustrophobic having someone buzzing around you all day and Bo-he is beginning to get fed up with Jiu-Bing’s continuing immaturity. He’s promised to “protect” her, but often ends up in trouble himself and needs her to rescue him. It’s Bo-he that finds him a place to stay after he accidentally blows up his new student dorm and gets kicked out, only it turns out to be half of a teenage girl’s bedroom above a family bakery, rented out by high schooler Xia-Tian (Tsai Jui-Hsueh) without her father’s (Chu Chung-heng) permission as an enterprising way to get a little more pocket money. Meanwhile, Bo-he has fallen for a handsome, heroic classmate, Mai-zi (Edison Song Bai-Wai), who is, in every stereotypical way, the perfect man. 

In an ironic twist, Jiu-Bing’s part-time job is as a “pacer”, supporting other runners as they make their way towards the finish line but eventually dropping back himself. He takes pride in being there for people, protecting and encouraging them, but still struggles to accept the fact that his chosen role inevitably means he’ll spend his life celebrating the successes of others rather than his own. Jiu-Bing eventually has this fact thrown in his face when a romantic rival describes him as nothing more than a rebound guy, implying that Bo-he only sees him as a fallback she can rely on when some other boy breaks her heart but will never really want to be with in the long term. 

On one level, Jiu-Bing is fine with that. He really does just want Bo-he to be happy even if it’s with someone else, but still struggles with the decision of whether to speak his feelings out loud and risk ruining their friendship or keep silent and live with the pain of being just her friend forever. As one of his eccentrically nerdy friends puts it, companionship is the “dark matter” that supports a relationship, but the jury’s still out on whether companionship alone is enough to go the distance. Meanwhile, he remains entirely oblivious to the fact that Xia-Tian is beginning to develop feelings for him that place her in exactly the same place as he is with Bo-he. Maybe he just thinks of Xia-Tian as a crazy little sister, and maybe Bo-he just thinks of him as a troublesome little brother who will always need looking after despite his constant protestations that all he wants is to be able to “protect” her. 

What Jiu-Bing learns however is that being a pacer is no bad thing. It’s much better to run with someone than to run alone, but there are times when you just need to set a pace for yourself so you can figure out how far you can run. There are more ways to love than just the romantic, though maybe that’ll come in time but perhaps not from the direction you’d expected. “Being heard and accepted is nothing we can decide” Xia-Tian adds, and what is teenage romance other than coming to an acceptance that sometimes you love people who don’t love you back? But then sometimes they do, and if you never say anything you’ll never know. Jiu-Bing has some growing up to do, and a few decisions to make so he can figure out where it is he ought to be – supporting from the sidelines or waiting with flowers near the podium. Either way, Lai Meng-Jie’s charming teenage rom-com is a refreshingly progressive take on the genre which allows it’s “nice guy” hero to find solace in the authenticity of his generosity while its heroine embraces her own sense of agency entirely independent of her romantic destiny. 


Stand By Me screens at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on Feb. 17 where the full lineup for the upcoming 10th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema will also be unveiled. Director Lai Meng-jie will be in attendance for an introduction and post-screening Q&A.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Chen Yu-hsun, 2013)

In these high speed days, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that “cooking means something” or at least it should do according to “Doctor Gourmet” Hai (Tony Yang). A warm tribute to the Taiwanese tradition of bandoh outdoor banquets, Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast (總舖師, Zǒng Pù Shī) positions the figure of the chef as a kind of conduit bridging the gap between people through the art of well cooked food. Heroine Wan (Kimi Hsia Yu-chiao), however, thoroughly rejected the ambitions of her top chef father and determined on a life in the city with her heart set on becoming a famous model, actress, and celebrity. 

Life in Taipei is however hard. Career success is hard to come by and duplicity lurks round every corner. Wan learns this to her cost when two shady guys turn up on the pretext of delivering a birthday cake only to explain to her that her boyfriend, whose loans she’s unwisely co-signed, has skipped town and left her with the bill. Confused and afraid, Wan decides to skip town herself, planning to head back to her hometown and ask her mother for help. What she discovers however is that her mother is on the run too after losing the family restaurant partly through her subpar cooking skills which could never match those of her late husband, and partly through the betrayal of his apprentice who poached all their best customers and set up on his own. Despite being “in hiding”, the only way Puffy (Lin Mei-hsiu) has been able to make ends meet is by putting on an impromptu dance show in the central square to promote her small noodle stall. Luckily for them both, Wan makes a chance encounter on the train with a nice young man, Hai, who turns out to be a “Doctor Gourmet” specialising in “fixing” failing restaurants.

His arrival comes at just the right moment as Wan and her mother get a visit from potential clients – a sweet older couple who first met 50 years previously at a wedding catered not by Wan’s father Master Fly Spirit, but by his now departed mentor. Wan’s mother was going to turn the request down because neither she nor Wan know how to make the traditional dishes the couple are looking for, but Wan makes an impromptu decision to try and make their wedding dreams come true, warning them that it might take a little extra time and not quite match up to their romantic expectations. 

Wan’s problem is that she always hated her family’s restaurant. She resented the heat and the smell and the grease, often placing an empty box over her head and retreating into a fantasy world to escape the chaos. Her father wanted her to take over, leaving her a notebook filled with his recipes which was unfortunately stolen by a homeless man who mugged her at the station, but she was dead set on escape and becoming a “someone” in the city. Unlike her mother, however, she has real talent for cooking and is equally skilled at using her good looks and sweet nature to get things done. Soon after her arrival at the noodle stand, she’s already got herself a gang of geeky groupies calling themselves “Animals on Call” who are ready to do pretty much anything she asks of them. 

That comes in handy when Puffy persuades her to enter a national cooking competition where her rival is none other than Tsai, the apprentice who betrayed them, backed up another famous ex-chef Master Ghost Head (Hsi Hsiang) who has a fiery temper and spent some time in prison which might be why he still dresses like an ultra cool motorcycle guy from the ‘70s. There were apparently three great masters, the other being the eccentric  Master Silly Mortal (Wu Nien-jen) who is later discovered living in a subway tunnel where he keeps the art of bandoh alive through a literal underground restaurant where his regulars bring him a selection of ingredients before sitting down to enjoy a communal meal. It’s Silly Mortal whose food is said to evoke human feelings who guides Wan towards a series of epiphanies about the nature of “traditional” food. According to him, there are no rules about what goes together, and having a “traditional” heart is really about embracing the true nature of bandoh. Only by having a heart full of joy can you make good food. 

Equally eccentric in some respects, Hai takes a back seat after reminding Wan that cooking is really a way of sending a coded message to its intended target. The two goons eventually join the team, working together earnestly to prepare for the biggest banquet of all which is both the old couple’s wedding celebration and the competition’s finale. Master Ghost Spirit talks about taking the “grief” out of meat through fine cutting, while Master Silly Mortal is all about putting positive emotions in, but the missing piece of the puzzle is Master Fly Spirit who sends his final message to Wan only after death as she rediscovers him through his recipes. Not quite giving up on her celebrity career, Wan embraces her inner chef, happy with the idea of making lunchboxes to sell at the station with her new friends and family rather than chasing money through oddly nihilistic cuisine as Tsai had done. In the end, it’s all about joy and togetherness, sharing tasty food in the open air where anyone and everyone is welcome to bring whatever they have to the table.


Zone Pro Site: The Moveable Feast screens in New York on Feb. 16 as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來, Gary Tseng & Mitch Lin, 2019)

“True love is your own choice, you have to love unconditionally” the cynical fortuneteller at the centre of Someone in the Clouds (真愛神出來, zhēn’ài shén chūlái) is told by Venus herself during an impromptu intervention. Is love fated or a matter of choice? Both, it would seem. At least, that special person might be out there, but you won’t know unless you fully commit. Another in the ongoing series of charming romantic comedies from Taiwan, Someone in the Clouds tackles the divination of love in more ways than one as its romance-averse heroine is forced to look at love from all angles. 

The daughter of a fortune telling family, Hsaio-Pei (Jian Man-shu) makes a living as a tarot reader mostly offering romantic advice to women suffering in love while she herself does not really believe in “the one”. Hsiao-Pei’s cynical, flighty mother declares that the most loveable love letter is a credit card and has been in a constant cycle of failed relationships since divorcing Hsaio-Pei’s father for the crime of working too much. In any case, the drama begins when Hsiao-Pei is spotted by in the subway by cocksure student Chiung-nan (Austin Lin Bo-hong) who tracks her down, walks into her uni tarot club, and wields the cards asking for a date. Not given much opportunity to refuse, Hsiao-Pei goes with it and the two have a beautiful, adolescent romance only for petty insecurities to end up getting in the way. 

According to Venus, all romances begin with “coincidence” but there is no “coincidence” in love. The goddess can guide the way, but the truth, apparently, is that true love is a free choice which is why Venus finds Hsiao-Pei’s mother so particularly annoying seeing as she always backs off when the going gets tough. Thus, Venus guides Chiung-nan to the tarot club for the meet cute, but Hsiao-Pei has to agree to the match. Venus’ parting wisdom is that true love, in a sense, is actually self love in that once you’re happy in yourself and can love unconditionally without expecting anything in return you will find “true love” without even realising it. 

Yet Hsiao-Pei’s path towards such a realisation requires a fair amount of intervention from the increasingly exasperated goddess. A moment of jealousy about some texts from an old girlfriend threatens to bring the whole thing crashing down while Hsiao-Pei relives her climactic moments Sliding Doors style trying to decide what might have been if different things had been said or done. Meanwhile, she continues reading the future for others and “punishing” Chiung-nan by punishing herself in a grim mirror of Venus’ central philosophy. 

Alternatively, as her grandpa claims, all you need to do to be happy is be kind and generous in the knowledge that life is short. This is a life lesson he imparts to Chiung-nan’s buxom cousin, a super popular online glamour model currently engaged to a wealthy Singaporean air steward who was originally taken by the idea of annoying his conservative parents with a surprise marriage to a modern girl but is now waking up to the major implications of his reckless decision. More words of wisdom come from Hsiao-Pei’s friend Panhai who takes a cheating ex back because she feels he needs her, replying to Hsiao-Pei’s criticism that need is not love with the reasoning that not everyone can tell the difference. 

True love is, according to the goddess at least, as simple as deciding to be happy. She can point the way, but in the end it’s up to the individual to claim their right to happiness or dwell in cynical misery for evermore. A whimsical coming-of-age romance, Someone in the Clouds finds that love is fate and free will in equal measure in which there are no “coincidences” only brief moments of transition standing in for destiny. What Hsiao-pei learns is that in order to achieve romantic happiness she’ll have to put her cards on the table for someone else to read while resolving to accept another interpretation in order to make a “free” choice with the spirit of kindness and generosity which allows her to forgive both herself and others. 


Someone in the Clouds was screened as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (Traditional Chinese subtitles only)

The Laundryman (青田街一號, Lee Chung, 2015)

青田街一號_主海報A_直式_有贊助_OLCould you, should you, attempt to wash away life’s “stains” by erasing them? The hero of Lee Chung’s The Laundryman (青田街一號, Qīngtián J Yīhào) is engaged with just that in his clandestine occupation in which he works as a kind of “cleaner”, smoothing the wrinkles out of life’s little problems for the monied and unscrupulous. Yet he finds himself “haunted” by his crimes, accused by those he so casually dispatched without asking why, and eventually forced into a reexamination of his life and work.

Known only by the cryptic codename “No. 1, Chingtian Street” (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan), our hitman is one of many working for the mysterious A-gu (Sonia Sui Tang) at her family laundry which she runs as a cover for her stable of assassins, claiming that they merely clean the stains from people’s lives rather than their clothes. A-gu’s methods are complex and exacting. Picking up concerned citizens in the street, she guides them towards her services before Chingtian or one of his colleagues inserts themselves into their target’s daily routine, knocks them off in a quiet sort of way, then brings the body “home” to be “laundered”.

The snag is that Chingtian has recently become plagued by the spirits of those he’s killed. Three of them, to be exact (and an extra one he didn’t off but has started following him anyway). Traditional therapy proving no help, A-gu sends Chingtian off to see Lin (Regina Wan Qian), a pretty psychic, despite affirming that all of this is some weird thing going on with Chingtian’s head rather than genuine paranormal activity. Lin, spotting his ghostly followers right away, explains to Chingtian that they most likely have unfinished business – i.e. finding out who wanted them dead and why. There is, however, a little more to it than that as a further trail of death begins to linger behind Chingtian that leads back to a dark and repressed memory of his youth.

Despite its whimsical tone, Lee’s drama leans heavily into the darkness in asking why it is someone might decide to pay to have someone else killed. The answers aren’t the ones you’re expecting. No business disputes or political machinations, only frustrated loves and loneliness. A nerdy young loner falls for the larger lady from next-door and is horrified to realise that her boyfriend beats her to the point at which she has begun to consider suicide as a means of escape. He wants to save her, and after all the world might be “better off” without the violent boyfriend, so he gives in to A-gu’s alluring offer to have the guy offed (for a small fee). Meanwhile, another mark decided on his course of action out of an excess of love, or to put it more pointedly, its dark side as he became increasingly convinced he could not live up to its expectation and determined to free himself of the burden, damning himself further into a downward spiral of self-destructive humiliation.

A-gu’s life philosophies lean to towards the callous with all her talk of “cleaning” and affirmations that “useless people should be destroyed”, but as Lin points out it’s quite something else to bump off a lovely older couple – some might even call it heartless. Heartless is what Chingtian has been raised to be, so his recently reawakened humanity is quite a problem. Caught between A-gu who alternates between something like possessive mother and femme fatale (which is just as strange a dynamic as it sounds), the pixyish Lin, and later the dogged policewoman Yang (Yeo Yann Yann) who’s picked up on a trail set down for her to find but followed it further than intended, Chingtian is forced to confront himself and his past, in a sense putting his psyche on a spin cycle to reverse a lifetime’s worth of brainwashing and remember who it is he really is.

Strangely warm and fuzzy, Lee’s whimsical world of colour is a perfect mix of film noir fatalism and fairytale promise as Chingtian walks a precarious path towards reintegration of his personality while trying a fair few others on for size. The childlike silliness of an anti-ghost musical number mingles with the hard edged kung fu of a violent procedural but Lee never loses his sense of cartoonish fun even as Chingtian begins to find his answers and with them a clue to inner darknesses personal and otherwise.


Currently available to stream in the UK (and possibly other territories) via Amazon Prime Video.

International trailer (English subtitles)

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)