Midi Z, whose “Nina Wu” unspools in Un Certain Regard, has no doubt that Taiwan is the place that made him.
Z, whose real name is Zhao Deyin, has Chinese roots and hails originally from Myanmar. He won a scholarship at age 16 and relocated to Taiwan to complete high school and attend university.
Since graduating, he has become a cutting-edge emblem of Taiwan’s new arthouse scene, which was previously identified with the precision of masters Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang. For the most part, Z makes films that are set in Myanmar or its Southeast Asian neighbors, and he says that shooting overseas is part of the freedom that he cherishes about Taiwan.
“I’m 100% sure that I would not be the same filmmaker if I were living somewhere else,” he says. “I’m related to both. I have family still in Burma. Together, these two places make me the artist I am today.”
His reasoning goes further than the purely personal, however. “Taiwan has the most creative freedom. It is the most democratic place in all Asia,” he says. “There is no censorship. Foreigners can get production support.”
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A beacon of democracy in a region where authoritarian governments and money politics are the norm, Taiwan’s politics are instead complicated and shaped by Japanese colonial times, a brutal military government not so long ago and frosty relations with mainland China.
While Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China, across a narrow strait the Communist government that rules the People’s Republic of China calls Taiwan a rebel province with which it will be reunited. By force if necessary.
Taiwan’s open arms policy means that the island has a rich literary and arts scenes. And it continues to use traditional characters for the written version of its Mandarin Chinese.
But in the film industry things are different. Taiwanese films are welcomed in the mainland — “More Than Blue” was a box office winner this year — but going in the opposite direction, Taiwan operates a quota system limiting how many PRC films per year can play in its theaters.
Somewhat shielded from mainland Chinese films, Taiwan audiences favor Hollywood titles first, and local films second. Z wonders whether Taiwan filmmakers are not caught in an economic trap. “We’ve limited ourselves and cannot easily make big-budget films. The [Taiwan] market is narrow and that is reflected through the investors,” he says. “But [most] Taiwanese also don’t do the ultra-low budget films of Southeast Asia.”
Z, on the other hand, has combined the artistic freedom provided by Taiwan with the economic freedom that comes from not being beholden to investors and audiences, a practice he calls “direct cinema.” Z’s first two films, “Return to Burma” and “Poor Folk,” were made on shoestring budgets of $5,000 each and a handful of crew. His third movie, “Ice Poison,” cost $10,000.
That makes “Nina Wu” his most financially ambitious. It cost $2 million, which makes it mid-budget by Taiwan standards. It is also his first film shot from a script that Z did not conceive, his first set in Taiwan and his first genre film.
“I would like to make something opposite to [direct cinema], a film that requires a complete and flawless script, meticulous planning and an efficient professional crew. In an extreme case, it would be perfect if I was supported by a bank and an army,” he says.
For all that, Z says “Nina Wu” is very much him. Pitched as a #MeToo movie of the post-Harvey Weinstein era, “Nina Wu” centers on an actress who is burdened by the psychological pressure of the film industry. “The woman from the countryside, working in the big city, is like my own situation as a Burmese in Taiwan,” Z says.
“I’m aiming for a new cinematic language. We actually did shoot with lots of coverage, dollies and cranes. But I cut out a lot of that in the editing room,” says Z. “There is an eight-minute take, but it is not simply visually long. Every frame has drama. I promise this is not just a boring arthouse movie.”