“They don’t just want to take my body, they want to take my soul!” So runs the overripe line of dialogue that actress Nina Wu (Wu Kexi) has to repeat again and again in “Nina Wu,” the fascinating, glitchy, stylish, and troublesome new film from Taiwanese director Midi Z (“The Road to Mandalay”). Nina practices the line in the mirror, rehashes it in auditions (and “auditions”) and then in take after take until it becomes a kind of mantra that threads through the film, or less poetically, the line of gibberish that a doll might parrot when you pull its string. Each time, Nina cries. And each time, the words seem to get rawer, a little of their clichéd glibness scuffing off, as we discover that the film is very much about how the taking of a body can cue the taking of a soul, and furthermore, how insidiously the victim of this double theft can be subconsciously convinced of her own complicity in it.
“Nina Wu” was written by its luminous star, inspired by her own experiences as a young actress and by the Harvey Weinstein scandal — much of which happened in plush hotel rooms not far from the Cannes theater where this Un Certain Regard title had its debut. And as the first directly #MeToo-related narrative to play in this context, it is a deeply challenging one, perhaps destined to be misinterpreted in some quarters, as it resists, even contradicts the simplification of its central act of violation into an obviously empowering, triumph-over-adversity arc. One of the basic tenets of #MeToo is that we listen to women; but what if they do not say exactly what #MeToo needs to hear?
In her cramped Taipei apartment, Nina prepares some dumplings and puts on a corseted outfit. She applies makeup, switches on a webcam and a smile and simpers down the lens, greeting her online fans with cutesy peace signs and coy entreaties for online currency. But then her phone rings with the offer of an audition that could be the big break her foundering acting career needs.
She learns her monologue and tries out, but the director (Shih Ming-shuai) appears unconvinced. And then, in the first of the film’s rug-pulling transitions (courtesy of one of editors Matthieu Laclau and Tsai Yann-Shan’s clever, unfindable cuts) we realize that what seems to be Nina leaving the audition in tears is actually her shooting an emotional scene for the film. She got the part, but quite how that happened, in the space of that tiny elision, is a mystery that Nina will go to extravagant psychological lengths to conceal from herself.
On set, Nina bears up under directorial bullying and turns in a star-making performance. But her reality has started to rupture: Lizards appear in lampshades, cockroaches crawl on her arms, and a sinister, smiling young woman (Hsia Yu-chiao) is following her with the malevolent intent of a “Black Swan.” Even when she returns as a star to the reassuring surroundings of her hometown to help her struggling parents, she is haunted by bad dreams featuring a hotel hallway, lit in red neon, and a doorway that she dare not approach.
Wu Kexi turns in a rivetingly brittle, vulnerable performance, navigating her own co-written script with absolute conviction, while Midi Z, formerly best known for works of social realism, luxuriates in ornamenting this psychodrama with hyperstylized noir flourishes. DP Florian Zinke’s color-blocked camerawork is sinuous and prowling, and even when not explicitly depicting Nina’s fraying state of mind, often tracks her in and out of rooms and buildings in woozy long takes as though the camera, too, were her pursuer.
The film within the film allows Z to create striking sequences depicting the artificiality and unfriendliness of the filmmaking process: A sex scene is choreographed in five emotionless yet humiliating tableaux; another sequence is repeatedly interrupted and reset as Nina struggles to achieve the unnatural pacing her irritated director desires. Other details may be simple coincidences but feel pointed in context: Nina mentions being an extra in “Lucy,” a film directed by Luc Besson, against whom multiple accusations of sexual violence and rape have been made; the room Nina is afraid of is numbered 1408, and “1408” is a hotel horror film executive produced by Harvey Weinstein.
There are narrative avenues that are perhaps unnecessary and serve to complicate the tangle of real and unreal even more: The rekindling of a lesbian relationship from Nina’s past is touchingly handled, but closeted homosexuality is something of a red herring as far as the main storyline is concerned. Still, it is unusual for an Asian title to centralize female desire, experience, and psychology to this degree, especially when it’s styled as a neo-noir, in which genre the female roles are traditionally largely decorative lures for the male protagonist to negotiate. “Nina Wu” is a thrillingly complicated sort of corrective, living out the progressive ideal of giving the victim back her story, even when that story, told with lacerating self-criticism and a deep undercurrent of dismay, includes a great deal that falls far short of progressive ideals.
With so much difficulty already embedded in parsing the #MeToo fallout, we long for easier narratives, with more cathartic outcomes than “Nina Wu” offers. But Z and Wu Kexi’s bravery in refusing to neaten and de-clutter an impossibly untidy issue should not be underestimated. The things that powerful men did, and continue to do, to women behind anonymous hotel room doors can have effects more debilitating to the victim’s sense of self than all the solidarity in the world can help with. When this story finally resolves, it is not on an uplifting “the truth will set you free” note, but with a harrowing, tawdry, forlorn scene that makes heartbreaking sense of all the fictions that have come before, and that poses a more difficult question about these experiences than we are perhaps ready to hear: When the world tells you you have nothing to be ashamed of (because you don’t), what do you do with all the shame?