I am a big fan of Taiwanese New Wave Cinema, but I have to admit I have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to one major director of this school – Hou Hsiao-hsien. I may well have adored “The Assassin”, but his significant back catalogue has been something I have failed to explore. So a few months back I picked up the Eureka! release of “Daughter of the Nile” in order to try and sort this gap in my film education out.
It’s actually a really strange film for Eureka to release, coming between the director’s Coming of Age and Taiwanese History trilogies, and somewhat self-maligned by the director as a ‘Pop-Star Vehicle”. On the other hand, it is a rather accessible film, and possibly a good starting point.
The film basically follows a few months in the life of Lin Hsiao-yang (Taiwanese Pop Star Lin Yang). Her mother and older brother have recently passed away (through cancer and car accident respectively), and her father works away mostly. She combines working in the local Kentucky Fried Chicken with schooling her younger sister, and dealing with her other brother (Jack Kao) who is sliding into a world of crime. The title references a popular shōjo manga called “Crest of the Royal Family” – in which a modern day girl is trapped in ancient Egypt, and falls in love with a young Pharaoh destined to die at the age of 22 (Hou parallels this with the modern storyline).
This is straightforward arthouse cinema, although it is genuinely approachable. We follow Hsiao-yang’s life through her claustrophobic home life, her interactions at work, and the occasional trip out with her friends.
The film is more interested in holding up a mirror to to contemporary Taiwanese society. The film was released in 1987, a time when Taiwan was about to have martial law lifted for the first time in nearly 4 decades. Urban taiwanese youth are being exposed to westernised culture and given certain freedoms for the first time (hence the KFC and the western pop songs that litter the soundtrack). But those freedoms come with a price: there are those that can leave, travel abroad, join the new world; but similarly the social restrictions on the young and women in particular imposed by a more traditional culture are still in place.
Hsiao-yang is obligated to look after her sister, give money to her ne’er-do-well brother, look after her injured father. For her, there is only a dream supplied by the music piped into her ears by a bright red (and purloined) Walkman, the world might be changing around her, but there won’t be a transformative moment that releases her. Even the boy she is crushing on is seduced by crime and the money it can offer, but the huge risks that lifestyle generates create tragedy.
I do feel “Daughter of the Nile” is a film that is one to be watched rather than enjoyed. I do like looking at countries and cities through a contemporary lens, and it is interesting to see a taiwanese story set at a touchstone moment in the countries modern history. I like how shots are composed technically (home life is cramped, with walls and doors cramping characters in frame, whereas outside shots are more vibrant, the wider shots and music filling our ears), and the performances appear naturalistic. I also like how the focus is very much on Hsiao-yang and her immediate family, with other events either happening in the background of shots, or only referenced through second hand gossip.
However, is it going to be a film I come back to again? Probably not. It doesn’t have a driving narrative arc I want to visit again, and there are plenty of other films from this era that can give me the socio-historical context that I crave. However, it is an interesting and fairly straightforward film, certainly not as oblique as Hou’s polarising “The Assassin”
So yeah – it’s Recommended, but with caveats.