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)

The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Huang Hsin-yao, 2017)

Great Buddha + posterFor some, the good life always seems a little out of reach, as if they showed up late to the great buffet of life and now all that’s left is a few soggy pastries and the salad someone’s aunt brings every year that no one really likes. Still, even if you know this is all there is, it doesn’t have to be so bad so long as you have good friends and something to do every day. The “heroes” of documentarian Huang Hsin-yao’s fiction feature debut The Great Buddha+ (大佛普拉斯, Dà fó pǔ lā sī) are exactly this sort – men in late middle age who’ve never quite grown up but have eased into a perpetual boyhood safe in the knowledge that there’s nowhere left for them to grow up to.

“Pickle” (Cres Chuang) is something of a holy fool. His major preoccupation in life is his elderly mother whose increasing medical bills he is continually worrying about paying. He’s taken to banging a drum in a local marching band with a big line in funerals for extra money at which he is terrible but seeing as there’s no one else his job is probably safe for the minute. His “occupation” is nightwatchman at a factory owned by “Kevin” (Leon Dai) – a renowned sculptor working on a giant Buddha statue. Nothing ever happens at the factory at night so no one is very bothered what Pickle does there, which is mostly being “entertained” by his “best friend” Belly Button (Bamboo Chen). Belly Button doesn’t really have a job but earns money through collecting recyclables and selling them on. Looking for a new source of vicarious fun, Belly Button talks Pickle into stealing the SD card from the dash cam on Kevin’s fancy car so they can enjoy riding along with him in their very own private sim. This turns out to be more fun than expected because Kevin is also a womaniser with a thing for car sex even if the cam only captures the audio of his exploits. Nevertheless, the guys inevitably end up seeing something they shouldn’t.

Huang shoots in black and white but switches to vibrant colour for the dash cam footage, somehow implying that nothing is quite so real to guys like Pickle and Belly Button as a fantasy vision of someone else’s glamorous life. After all, if it’s not online it didn’t really happen. Trapped in the gutter of small town life, both men have either failed to move on from or wilfully regressed into a perpetual adolescence in which they waste their days idly on pointless pursuits – leafing through ancient porn mags, gossiping, and eating half frozen curries from half-filled Tupperware boxes. A mild mannered man, Pickle is so innocent that he never quite understands Belly Button’s lewd jokes while Belly Button, who is picked on and belittled by everyone else in town, takes delight in being able to boss him around.

Together the pair of them can only marvel at a man like Kevin with his wealth and talent which allows him to gain the thing they want the most – female company. Kevin, however, is not quite as marvellous as they might assume him to be even if they remain in awe of his caddish treatment of women while perhaps feeling sorry for those unfortunate enough to fall in love with him. In tight with the local bigwigs, Kevin is simply one link in a long chain of bureaucratic corruption in which business is done in the bathhouse surrounded by floozies. Kevin never explicitly lets on whether he knows that Pickle and Belly Button have stumbled on his secret, but their lives begin to change all the same. Their easy nights in the security cabin have gone for good and they feel themselves under threat in a chilling reminder of how easily a little guy can disappear or fall victim to an accident after asking too many questions about a vain and powerful man with money.

Meanwhile, Pickle is left worrying what’ll happen to his mum if he falls out with Kevin. Even if he wanted to speak out about a great injustice, he’d be putting his mother in the firing line. Then again, after a brief visit to Belly Button’s home in which he cocoons himself inside a mini UFO filled with the prizes he’s won from UFO grabber games (he says it’s like “therapy”), Pickle is forced to wonder how well he even knew him – his only friend. As Huang puts it in his melancholy voice over, we might have put men on the moon, but we’ll never be able to explore the universe of other peoples’ hearts.

Huang’s deadpan commentary is among the film’s strongest assets with its New Wave associations and determination to wring wry humour out of the increasingly hopeless world inhabited by Pickle, Belly Button, and their similarly disenfranchised friends. Filled with meta humour and a deep sadness masked by resignation to the futility of life, The Great Buddha+ is a beautifully lensed lament for the little guy just trying to survive in a land of hollow Buddhas and venial charlatans.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)