After a big surge in quality cinema around the beginning of the 10s, Taiwanese cinema seems to have slipped in somewhat of a lull again. Midi Z's Nina Wu [Juo Ren Mi Mi] isn't promising a big revolution, but it's a clear sign that Taiwanese cinema isn't dead (or at least not beaten into submission by the legacy of the Taiwanese New Wave) just yet. I wasn't really expecting much when I picked it up, but I got a very stylish, modern and intriguing mystery/thriller that should be able to do well on the international market.
The shadow of Hou, Tsai and Yang still looms over the Taiwanese film industry. A young and talented group of directors stood up about a decade ago, but without the commercial appeal and critical success needed to make a real and lasting impact, their work lies dormant until it will no doubt be rediscovered by one of our future generations. In the meantime, Taiwanese cinema seems mostly focused on the local market, with one of two breakout films per year that manage to escape the island. Nina Wu is such a film.
I'm usually not a big fan of films that tackle the film/art industries, notably the ones that mistake self-pity for drama and/or comedy. But when used to set up mindfuck/mysteries, it has proven to be a very effective framework (just think Mulholland Dr., Helter Skelter or Perfect Blue). The latter in particular feels like a solid inspiration for Nina Wu, where an aspiring actress is given a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in a film by a respected director. Her part is quite risqué though and the director turns out to be a rather shady character.
Nina has been keeping her head above water by doing some influencer-related work, in between smaller gigs for advertisements and short films. While it pays the rent, it's hardly the glamour and prestige she hoped for when she signed up to be an actress. So when her agent finally gets her a role in an upcoming feature film, it really feels like it's Nina's final chance to claim her place in the spotlight. The shoot is hard on Nina, especially with a director that is so demanding, but she battles through it and finally seems on her way to stardom. But then her mom falls ill and Nina's past is about to catch up with her.
A film like this needs some stark and impressive visuals to make people take notice, and that's where Nina Wu shines. The cinematography is absolutely striking. The framing is exquisite, the color palette is beautiful, sporting the occasional color pop, and the camera work is very precise and stylish. It is one of the traits of Taiwanese cinema so expectations were quite high, luckily Midi Z delivers. To top it off, Ke-Xi Wu's styling is so peculiar that she instantly becomes one of the visual landmarks of the film.
The soundtrack is solid, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Good music for a thriller, also quite stylish and atmospheric, but nothing that really sticks to your brain. It's the sound design that makes a bigger difference here. Amplified sound effects and tight sound editing create a tense and mysterious atmosphere, which communicates an uneasiness without explicitly showing or telling you anything. It's still not too daring or exceptional, but it's nice to see Z taking the sound design beyond Taiwan's comfort zone and making it a more essential part of a film.
The casting is flawless too, even then it's Ke-Xi Wu who draws all the attention towards her. She has a completely unique aura, a certain charisma that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. It certainly not just classic beauty or sex appeal, her often contorted expressions are far from flattering, but somehow her image and presence simply merged with the film. It also helps that she's a terrific actor. Vivian Sung, Kimi Hsia and Chih-Wei Tang also deliver superb performances, but they're simply eclipsed by the titular star of the film.
The setup of the film is pretty brilliant, so is the finale. It's the middle part where Midi Z seems to struggle a bit. There's a little extra drama that forces the audience to reinterpret the first part while building up the final part of the film, but because of the sudden tonal shifts I was left wondering whether the film would make good on its thriller promises, or would pivot to full-blown drama. It's only for a short while and it's quickly forgotten once the finale is back at full speed, but it did take me out of the film just long enough to make me a little worried.
Apart from that short hiccup, I had a lot of fun with Nina Wu. It's nice seeing a solid thriller coming out of Taiwan, a genre they're not commonly producing but clearly have the chops for. The result is an incredibly stylish, moody and enthralling film sporting lush cinematography, great sound design and a killer lead that keeps the audience on its toes until the very end. Midi Z shows he's a very capable genre director and leaves quite the calling card. Hopefully the film's international reception doesn't let him down, so he can build on this great film.