by Cait Lore on Nov 9, 2020

Throughout the 29th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival slate. Our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic treasures that might have otherwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up your virtual tickets.

After a steady run of critical hits in the mid-2010s, Taiwanese actress Ke-xi Wu was ready for a change. When she secured a Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival nomination in 2016 for her performances in Midi Z’s Burmese migrant dramas (Ice Poison, The Road to Mandalay), it seemed like she had made it. She didn’t win the award, but that didn’t matter; her reputation had been cemented. Now that she was in a new phase of her career, she could pick her roles — or so she thought.

What came after, however, was more of the same. Again and again, she’d receive offers to play women from Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam — all repeats of the same migrant character, all of which she rejected. If she didn’t want to play a migrant worker, how about a femme fatale? Maybe something with a bit of nudity? No thank you, she responded, until the offers stopped coming.

So what kind of roles was Ke-xi Wu looking for exactly? In interviews and press conferences, she had made it clear: Her favorite films were the honest ones that never shied away from ugly truths. Movies like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997), Andrea Arnold’s Wasp (2003), and Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) were among her favorites. But no one brought her projects like that — other than Midi Z, of course — and so if she wanted to do something new, she would have to create that opportunity herself. By the end of 2016, she had written two screenplays, both of them true to her values and both deeply personal.

At first glance, Ke-xi Wu’s Nina Wu looks like Perfect Blue (1998) for the #MeToo movement. Certainly, Wu and director Midi Z — who signed on the second Wu brought him her script — are certainly capable of stepping into Satoshi Kon’s shoes. In their film, Wu plays Nina, a two-bit actress who is stuck making dumplings for one. Reaching the end of her prime — or so she’s told — Nina is coerced into accepting a leading role in a 1960s spy thriller. It’s a big break for the aspiring actress, but it requires nudity and explicit sex scenes. And to make matters worse, her director seems to revel in humiliating her on set. As her public identity grows and the pressure gets more intense, Nina’s sanity begins to chip away and past traumas start to catch up with her.

Don’t be fooled by the description, however: This is not just one of those Movies About Right Now. (For what it’s worth, the #MeToo movement began a year after Wu penned the screenplay, as did Time’s Up and the Weinstein accusations.) Nina Wu is a deeply personal work for Wu, and a major departure for Midi Z. Not only is it Z’s largest budget to date ($2 million!), but it’s also the direct-cinema filmmaker’s first stab at genre film, and his only film to date based on someone else’s screenplay. The risks have paid off.

When Nina Wu played at Cannes, Quentin Tarantino called it “terrific,” drawing comparisons to Mulholland Drive (2001) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Ke-xi Wu’s astonishing performances secured her another Golden Horse. However, what makes Nina Wu unmissable is the act of faith at its center, one where an acclaimed director steps back, allowing a performer to dare to take control of her career.

Virtual tickets for Nina Wu are available to MO and IL viewers from Nov. 5 - 22 and can be purchased here.