Saturday, May 8, 2021

Review - Daughter of the Nile

May 9, 2021

Daughter of the Nile – Taiwan, 1987

Hou Hsiao-hsian’s Daughter of the Nile is about a family in the process of coming apart, one which, interestingly, takes place the year Taiwan officially ended martial law. This development took place in the waning years of Taiwan’s economic miracle, as China began opening up and companies started relocating there to gain greater access to the Chinese market and save money on labor costs. The characters in the film, as well as Hou himself, had no way of knowing this when the film was made, and any sense of foreboding tragedy is likely the result of audience’s projecting onto the film a tone and mood that was unintended. Still, I’m not sure that there was ever a moment when I believed a happy ending was in the cards.

The film begins with a dash of Shakespeare: A young woman named Hsiao-yang (Yang Lin) looks directly at the camera and establishes the back story of the family we are about to follow. We learn that death has reared its ugly head more than one. The matriarch of the family died after a long battle with cancer, the older brother is also gone, though the details of his fate remain unexplained. We learn the siblings – Hsiao-fang (Jack Kao), Hsiao-yang, and Xiao-wei - relocated to northern Taiwan, while the father (Fu Sheng Tsui) remained in the southwestern city of Chiayi, likely due to a job in law enforcement. The arrangement essentially makes Hsiao-fang, a dashingly handsome young man who dropped out of school to pursue economic opportunities, the head of the family. His sister Hsiao-yang, who works at KFC, is taking night classes, while also helping to raise Hsiao-wei, the youngest of the siblings. It is a set-up that benefits no one.

Well, almost no one, for sometimes great responsibility brings out the best in people. For all the talk of Hsiao-fang’s uncontrollable childhood wildness, the young man we see in the beginning seems to have his life on track. He’s opened a restaurant, is in a relationship, and resolves disputes with surprising composure. And while he has not completely given up his wicked ways – in one scene, we witness him escaping from an apartment after burglarizing it – we sense that his ultimate goal is to turn over a new leaf.

Smartly, Hou avoids overly dramatic scenes in favor of short snippets which, added up, give up enough of the story to understand the sentiments of those involved. There are a few interesting scenes featuring the sibling’s grandfather (Tianlu Li) that illustrate just how emasculated he has become and explain why he would take such an interest in mentoring Xiao-wei. There are also scenes of Hsiao-yang passing her time in her brother’s restaurant, a habit that exposes her to a few less respectful members of society, and we see enough of Xiao-wei’s academic struggles to see that in a few years she could be where her sister is now.

I realize I’m making Daughter of the Nile into a bit of a downer, which is not entirely accurate, for when we get a glimpse into Hsiao-yang’s life, we are reminded of it’s many wonders – a shy boy’s attempts at asking a young lady to the movies, the everyday tussles of the classroom, and the inevitable approach of adulthood. During one moving sequence, we see Hsiao-yang and her friends joyfully celebrating life and friendship at a beachside bonfire, while hearing an older Hsiao-yang explain the impermanence of the moment. Some classmates, she tell us, would soon leave for college; others would join the army or go overseas. Life is never static. And, of course, there are plenty of squandered opportunities.

With Daughter of the Nile, Hou created a film that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It captures the many highs and lows of youth, as well as its promise and disappointment. In it, we see the opportunity that economic progress allows and just how easy it is for it to slip away, especially for those who are their own worst enemy. We enable, we cut corners, we put our heart over our head. We’ve all been there. And maybe that is the true genius of Hou’s films. While they are about Taiwan, there’s something universal about them. We’ve all lost people, we’ve all had first loves, we’ve all had moments of moral regression, and we’ve all had moments when we were suddenly aware of the fleeting nature of many of life’s pleasures. I remain grateful to Hou and his masterful screen writer Chu Tien-Wen. He and movies like Daughter of the Nile are true treasures. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

4 stars

*Daughter of the Nile is in Taiwanese and Mandarin.

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