An Interview with Midi Z
By Chris Shields
Six Films by Midi Z, an online retrospective, presented in collaboration with the Taipei Cultural Center in New York, Ministry of Culture of Taiwan, plays March 26 to April 11 exclusively at Museum of the Moving Image. Nina Wu plays alongside the retrospective at MoMI.
Midi Z has come a very long way from his upbringing in rural Myanmar. The 38-year-old Taiwanese filmmaker’s latest film, the art-house thriller Nina Wu, screened in Cannes’s “Un Certain Regard” in 2019, represents a major leap in both style and scope from the director’s previous efforts. Return to Burma, Poor Folk, and Ice Poison are all small-scale works crafted from long takes, improvisation, and populated by mostly nonprofessional actors. In these films, Midi Z confronts the ugly realities facing migrant workers and the rural poor with mysterious spiritual beauty and stark political immediacy.
In Nina Wu, scripted by his frequent collaborator, actor Wu Ke-Xi, the austerity and durational aesthetics of earlier films give way to lush production design, elegant camerawork, and touches of surreal, psychological horror. What remains, however, is the reality of exploitation and the plight of diasporic people looking for something better. Nina Wu tells the story of a failing actor, Nina Wu (Wu Ke-Xi), who finally gets a big break. The role she is offered, though, involves explicit nudity and sex. Reluctantly, she accepts. From here, the line between reality and Nina’s inner world begins to slowly collapse, as we learn more about what she’s kept secret from her past.
Nina Wu is both an intoxicatingly stylish thriller and a gut-wrenching indictment of power and sexual exploitation, with Wu Ke-Xi’s star turn as its fiery core. Beginning today, Museum of the Moving Image is presenting Midi Z’s exhilarating new film along with five of the director’s previous works. The director took some time to discuss his new film, success, fear, Ingmar Bergman, pirated DVDs, and how difficult and easy it can be to make movies.
Reverse Shot: What were some of your concerns going into making Nina Wu?
Midi Z: I worried that this film, compared to my previous films, would be too stylish. In preproduction, I would discuss what aesthetic would be suitable for the film. We started to think maybe we should use a lot of dolly and tracking shots because it would allow the camera to slowly reveal hidden things. Sometimes I was worried it was showing off too much. My previous experience was slow cinema. This film made me feel less confident. There was more coverage and more camera movement, but after editing, I felt our choices were right. Different kinds of stories should use different kinds of styles. I’m still trying to find what cinematic language is suitable for my stories. Maybe I could use a single cinematic language to tell my stories, but I don’t want to. We are young, we should try something experimental, something risky. It’s okay, it’s only a film [laughs].
RS: While the style is quite different, there are thematic similarities between Nina Wu and your previous films, which deal with migration, particularly to find work. Is this something you tried to focus on?
MZ: Filmmakers and artists can’t avoid making something that reflects their experience. My background is similar to Nina Wu’s. The story is about a girl coming from her hometown. When she is in the city, she becomes isolated. Similar to my previous films, it’s concerned with the rural diaspora. She’s looking for a chance to change her life. She’s climbing from the bottom to someplace higher. I think it’s ultimately, like my other films, another story of globalization. I think the appearance of the film is different but inside it is the same—my experience and education. You see, these people poor and migrant people, where I come from, don't have so many choices, they may only have one choice. That’s why they choose it; even though they realize it’s a trap, they can't avoid it.
RS: Did working on a much larger scale feel limiting or more freeing?
MZ: I felt more limited by the big production. I push myself to take responsibility for the investors and for my crew and actors. So sometimes I feel intense pressure. I am also the main executive producer for all my films. I have to worry about financing, I have to be rational and responsible for my investors. But during the shooting, those kinds of pressures disappear, because I focus so deeply on the creative journey. After shooting and editing, though, I feel very scared. One week before we began, the pressure grew bigger and bigger, but during the shooting, when I arrived at the location, when the lights turned on, when the actor was standing in place, I felt comfortable. Still, now, I prefer to use just a one-man crew, a single camera, and to go into a remote region to make a documentary without a script—small crew, small budget.
RS: Improvisation is a major part of your previous films. Was there room for improvisation in Nina Wu?
MZ: Even though it’s bigger than my previous films, there was room for improvisation. Half of the film is improvised. I shot all the details of the script. But 50 percent of what we shot is not in the script. In the end, it could have been other films, but we found the film you see in the editing. You can imagine by just adding different kinds of coverage, with flashbacks, with more fast cutting, more images, it could be something else, but we didn’t want that. It’s not that kind of film.
RS: Making films in Taiwan, do you see your work as a continuation of a Taiwanese film legacy? I’m thinking specifically of Edward Yang, Tsai Ming-liang, and Hou Hsiao-hsien?
MZ: Actually, my earlier films, from Return to Burma to Ice Poison, were influenced by Hou Hsiao-hsien. I was his student at the Golden Horse Academy. I remember doing a location scout together. I remember driving on my scooter with Hou on the back looking for locations [laughs].
When I met Hou Hsiao-hsien, the short film I was making was about two teenagers who kill someone and must flee Taiwan. During the shooting there was a huge crew and storyboards. We were having the meeting on how to shoot, how to do the production design. Hou came and stopped me. He said, you have to remember, your actors are not professional. If you want them to follow your storyboard and if you ask them to act like professionals according to the coverage you want to shoot, it will be a tragedy. They will fail. At that time, I didn’t follow his advice, and I asked my non-professional actors to follow my coverage and storyboard, and it failed. So, I quickly changed my approach. All the background actors were real. I had the principal actors run into the crowd fighting. All the background actors were scared thinking it was a real fight. Films for me mostly, before this, were fake. When we turn on the camera, everything is different from reality. From that time, I learned maybe I could learn something about my reality from film. Maybe I can create something with the film that can reflect my reality . . . I thought, we can capture reality from the fake camera.
I remember the wrap party. Hou Hsiao-hsien likes to sing karaoke. He sings very well. We sang together. He knew I was from Burma. He explained why we couldn’t make films like in Hollywood. He opened my brain and filmmaking became so easy. I can take a camera and go back to my home country. I have so many stories to tell.
RS: And this led to your first feature, Return to Burma?
MZ: So, after the workshop, one year later, I finished my master’s degree, and I bought a Panasonic camera. With three people, we went back to my hometown, and in 10 days we made Return to Burma. My line producer became the lead actor, and he went on to act in three of my films. I was familiar with the location and the crew followed me and trusted me. We followed instincts, we talked to the people, we asked them about the problems they were facing. Right after we talked to them, we’d shoot with them. Some of the scenes in Ice Poison and Return to Burma we shot in two takes. They were nonprofessionals, so I used Hou’s instructions—no coverage. It’s easier. I began to realize these kinds of limitations lead artists to freedom.
RS: In Nina Wu, Wu Ke-Xi’s performance is anything but nonprofessional. It’s intense and brutal. How did you approach working with her in this way?
MZ: Nina Wu was a very special experience. Wu Ke-Xi is the main script writer for the film; she created the story. When I read the script, I loved it. It’s a very private experience shown in the script. Before the shooting, we revised the script together, but when we got closer to shooting, I preferred her to focus more on the performance, on the character not the script. Since Wu Ke-Xi created the character, though, she might know better than me. The performance was easier, because she understood the character very deeply. When we would finish a take and she felt it wasn’t good, she would want to do it again. She would ask us to react to the performance and depending on that we would do it again or move on.
I remember Hou saying, when you find your suitable actor, when you are at the location, you just say yes or no, you don’t have to explain to them, they know. You don’t have to express the scenario. In fact, sometimes they understand better than you.
RS: I read that you watched 1,000 films in three years?
MZ: In college, going to the theater was too expensive for me. I was working and supporting my family in my hometown in Burma. So, I went to the library and rented DVDs. A lot of pirated DVDs from China. Without pirated DVDs, without the internet, without digital means, I couldn't be a filmmaker. In school, we had individual rooms and our labs where we could work. I destroyed the lights and used my area to make my own theater. Of course, it was a very DIY theater in my lab. Then, day by day, I’d watch films while eating my lunchbox.
I remember watching films by Ingmar Bergman. I watched Wild Strawberries while I ate from my lunchbox. And then after 15 minutes I fell asleep. Then the next day I got 30 minutes in and fell asleep. The next day I watched more and then fell asleep. I kept watching. One year later, when I was about to graduate, I had a problem: I was a foreigner living in Taiwan. When I graduated, if I didn’t have a job, I’d have to leave. I remember watching Wild Strawberries again. I felt the same as the main character in the film felt. I was very young at the time, but I had to make a decision, if I would stay or leave. I was young, but my spiritual feeling was very similar to Bergman’s main character. I was lucky though, and a television advertising company saw my graduation film and offered me a job so I could stay in Taiwan.
RS: Coming as far as you have, for you, what is success?
MZ: When I finished my first short film, it got an award—it was a cash prize. I was very fulfilled.I thought I had achieved success compared to folks in my small hometown. My biggest ambition before I left my home country at 16 was to make $10,000 and use it to build my family a new house. Then, when I made films and I got a cash prize, I thought maybe I could make films for prizes and nothing else. [laughs]
For someone like me, there wasn’t an opportunity to dream or to imagine being an artist. I came from a background where my father said I didn’t need to imagine art, I didn’t need to learn painting or music, I just needed to find a job. In Chinese we have a saying, “First you need to escape from your hunger, then you will know the art and the culture.” Art is far beyond what seems possible for poor people. I was very lucky. I was the luckiest one, compared to my family. Still, my mother might not totally understand what I’m doing. Whenever I call her, she asks me, “Do you make money?” and “Is your income enough?” I say, “It’s enough, it’s enough,” and then she says, “Okay.”
Midi Z and Nina Wu photos courtesy of Film Movement; Return to Burma photo courtesy Seashore Image Productions.