It’s distressing, but not the least bit shocking, to realize that the “casting couch” is Hollywood’s ugliest “gift” to world cinema. The Taiwanese thriller “Nina Wu” is a surreal take on how such a practice might impact and trigger the young women subjected to its humiliations, the emotional cost of getting your “big break.”
Nina, played by Ke-Xi Wu, who co-wrote the script, is an actress flirting with 30, struggling to get by in Taipei. She’s been there eight years, she tells her agent (Lee Lee-zen). We’ve seen how she gets by — living in a tiny apartment, running an “internet celebrity” hustle that she tries to keep PG-13, despite the horny guys who make up her “fans.”
And now she’s been offered an audition for a big movie, a 1960s period piece titled “Romance of the Spies.”
But they want nude scenes. There’s sex in the script. And demure, provincial Nina isn’t sure she’ll go that far.
“If you’re really concerned,” Mark sighs (in Mandarin Chinese with subtitles), “don’t even audition.”
She takes the audition, endures the judgement of the creative team and hears the contemptuous “No real professional would turn down a good role because of nudity.”
And somehow, despite a shaky audition, despite limited small-town theater skills, she gets the role. That’s when Nina’s nightmares literally begin.
Nina feels, with good reason, that everybody on the set is out to get her. The increasingly-irate director (Ming-Shuai Shih) has to micro-direct her performance, and do it in front of the crew. Retakes break her down, and when that doesn’t work, slaps and shouting egg her on. There’s a roach in her craft-services meal. Put there on purpose?
And that’s just what we see for ourselves. The stress she’s under and the things on set that trigger her don’t stop during a holiday filming break over New Year’s. Her family seems caught up in her celebrity. But her nightmares point to trauma and her fears are that her family will disintegrate and none of this will be worth it.
Massages, spa treatments, everything she experiences she sees through a paranoid lens.
Director Midi Z and his muse (Ke-Xi Wu is in most of his films, including “The Road to Mandalay”) take us on an increasingly fraught and stylized trip down the rabbit hole of “big break” success and the guilt and emotional scars that linger from what Nina might have endured to get there.
“Nina Wu” can be quite hard to follow as we wonder about her slipping grasp on reality and discover other components in her background that “explain” how unhinged getting this role, acting in this film and coping with “celebrity” (press conferences) has made her.
Wu is quite good at getting across the fear and uncertainty in Nina’s situation, an actress in over her head in an alien environment where she can’t even trust these strangers to not kill her in a stunt that goes carelessly wrong.
The situation has hints of the cult classic, “The Stunt Man,” but with little of that film’s overt, mustache-twirling camp villainy.
Midi Z puts Nina in empty hotel hallways of crimson and neon, an audition where we see, in a faint misty background, silent screen actors showing her connection to being an acting “professional,” violent encounters with a “rival” (Kimi Hsia) that could all be in her head, and glimpses of a simpler, happier past with a community theater co-star (Vivian Sung), a sounding board who doesn’t want to hear from her after she’s run off to the big city.
But that hotel room she keeps going by in her dreams? You know from the number on the door that something horrible happened there, even if John Cusack isn’t involved in this room “1408.”
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, profanity
Cast: Ke-Xi Wu, Vivian Sung, Kimi Hsia, Ming-Shuai Shih
Credits: Directed by Midi Z., script by Wu Ke-Xi, Midi Z. A Film Movement+ release.
Running time: 1:42