★★★★☆

Taiwanese director Midi Z’s Nina Wu tackles the theme of predatory male behaviour and exploitation of female bodies in the film industry. The screenplay, co-written with lead actress Ke-Xi Wu, does not pull any punches. Going soft on the audience would hinder the uncompromising message at the heart of the story.

Make no mistake, this is a difficult watch. Yet disturbing art can educate and inform, as much as shock our sensibilities. Midi Z and Ke-Xi Wu, though, are not exploitation filmmakers craving attention or getting off on causing an arthouse kerfuffle at a major festival. With the vital #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s myriad scandals appearing regularly in the press, Nina Wu could be deemed “problematic”, mistaken for yet another trawl through the gutter of the male gaze or trading in misogyny while in disguise as a feminist text. On closer look, the charges just won’t stick. It implies, for one, Ke-Xi Wu is stupid or operating in bad faith. This is a film with honorable intentions and an artistic statement on social sickness.

Ke-Wi Wu stars as Nina, a young actor with dreams of superstardom. One day she’s asked to audition for a role in a spy thriller, titled Romance of the Spies. Winning the part, she’s thrown head first into production and is often on the receiving end of the director’s gripes and abusive tactics. He is a bully and quite clearly an inarticulate hack, disguising his artistic indecision with shouting. The spy film is released and proves a big hit, success soon follows and Nina’s life begins to change dramatically. Her family reappears, we learn she suffers from depression, longs for the girlfriend she split up with years ago and the father in financial difficulties. Is Nina terrified her personal life will be made public or is she having a nervous breakdown in the wake of hitting the big time?

While the plot and character’s increasingly dissociative state brings to mind Naomi Watts’ starlet going bonkers in Muholland Drive (2001), where this cleverly departs from surrealist nightmare, standard psycho-thrillers and “It was all a dream” pay-offs, is a stomach-turning conclusion, lending the dreamlike narrative a crushing realness.

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