What you need to know
Nina Wu (灼人秘密) is the first Taiwanese film to stir conversations around the #MeToo movement.
In October 2017, The New York Times broke the story about American film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual crimes over some 30 years. It spurred a growing number of women (and some men) in the film industry to speak out about their own experiences of sexual harassment and assault by the rich and powerful, an event that later snowballed into the global #MeToo movement.
For some reason or other, the movement as a whole doesn’t seem to have penetrated into Taiwanese popular culture.
Nina Wu (灼人秘密, literally “burning secret”), a film by Taiwan-based Burmese writer-director Midi Z (趙德胤), was first unveiled in the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of the titular aspiring actress (Wu Ke-xi 吳可熙), whose career is finally launched by a Weinstein-like executive producer (Elton Tang 湯志偉).
The deck is stacked against her from the beginning, putting her at the mercy of the men around her. When she’s offered a star-making role in a WWII-era spy-romance film (called Spy Romance) with a nude threesome scene, her agent’s (Lee Lee-zen李李仁) assurance that she should only take the role “if you’re comfortable with it” sounds like mere boilerplate amidst his persuasion and cajoling. The Spy Romance director (Shih Ming-shuai 施名帥) is analytical and technically proficient, but he’s also abusive, choking and slapping Nina in a key scene to get a rise out of her, creating an atmosphere of fear on set that further isolates Nina. And then, of course, there’s the executive producer.
Nina’s alienation is heightened by the precise camerawork. Her movement navigates the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio surrounded by cinematographer Florian Zinke’s lush yet muted uses of reds, greens, and blues; and the frame’s delimited sense of space makes it yet another source of her confinement.
In Nina’s final audition, we see the director cross out her headshot, but the very next scene shows Nina on set. What happens in the elision is the “burning question” that the film circles around, the answer to which is an event where ramifications increasingly blur the line between traumatic flashback and repressed memory, dream and reality. But the last scene brings the actual abuse back into focus, showing how the unreal is Nina’s subjective experience of the real, amplified in hindsight.
The horror-tinged film score by Lim Giong (林強) is the running string that punctuates Nina’s distress. Adding to the uncanny mood is the film’s use of echoes and structural reversals. A long and winding single-take camera chase through Zhongshan Hall (中山樓, the one in Yangmingshan) for Spy Romance is later reprised in a beauty parlor; Nina eats dumplings by choice in her personal life but has no other choice on set; and her dog, Oscar, is a source of both solace and, later, humiliation.
The most striking reversal has to do with desire. We only see the threesome scene in rehearsal, when Nina and two buff men, all dressed, go through the positions as a series of tableaux “with no emotion,” as the director continually reminds them. It’s just as well that we don’t see the scene itself, as the positions are degrading for Nina, and also explicit as fu— well, you get the idea.
And yet desire does make it to the screen. When Nina returns to Taichung for her mother’s heart surgery, and to help pay off her father’s business debts, she runs into her old flame, Kiki (Vivian Sung 宋芸樺). Their sex scene is intimate without being titillating; in fact, Kiki is the only person who doesn’t deal with Nina in either carrots (fame, money, awards) or sticks (pressure, humiliation, family debt). It takes an industry outsider who’s neither possessive nor a man to forge a genuine human connection.
One reason #MeToo started in the culture industry is that, unlike white-collar workers, actors mostly have control over their own careers and serve as their own protection. When Nina’s agent gets indignant on her behalf over yet another on-set meal of cold dumplings, she says, “I’m not being bullied, everyone gets the same food.” A rival actress (Kimi Hsia 夏于喬) also abused by the executive producer complains that she didn’t get the part even though “I know the game and held up my end of the exchange.”
When the system itself is abusive, how do you beat it without playing the game?
And when the system is the entire patriarchal society, how do you survive with your dignity and sanity intact? Located in the traditional hierarchical patriarchy of East Asia, Taiwan is arguably overripe for its #MeToo moment. However, conversations of everyday harassment and abuse, such as the wide-ranging one started by author Wu Hsiao-le (吳曉樂) reflecting the experience of hundreds of women, need a reference point to expand beyond personal experiences. Nina Wu will hopefully be such a reference point.
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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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2019 Golden Horse Awards
Established in 1962, the Golden Horse Awards are among the most prestigious and time-honored film awards in the world of Sinophone cinema. This year, China banned the Golden Horse Awards and withdrew all the Chinese and Hong Kong films from the competition. Despite Chinese censorship and suppression, the Golden Horse will still honor the talents from Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and other countries. The final results will be revealed at the Golden Horse Awards Ceremony on November 23, 2019.All feature article