Daughter Of The Nile (Cert 15)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray Combo (Distributor: Eureka) Running Time: 93 minutes approx.
Release Date: May 29th
One of the problems with being a film buff is that you often come across films lauded by many that you can’t get to grips with and are left wondering what it is you are missing. Thanks to Eureka’s Masters Of Cinema series, I find myself once again at odds with the popular consensus.
This 1987 film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien receives it first mainstream release in the west, but those fortunate enough to have seen it embraced it warmly. It concerns 19 year-old Lin Hsiao-yang (Lin Yang), forced to hold her family together in the absence of her police officer father (Fu Sheng Tsui) who works away from home to support his family in the wake of his wife’s death.
Hsaio-yang works in a KFC by day while attending night school, her wages often going to pay of the debts of her elder brother Lin Hsiao-fang (Jack Kao) is a criminal running his own restaurant with his friends. Hsaio-yang is in love with Hsaio-fang’s gigolo friend Ah-Sang (Fan Yang) who is wooing the moll of a Triad member. This puts Hsaio-fang in danger through being guilty by association and Hsaio-yang is left to pick up the pieces.
Perhaps it is because I am only familiar with Hou through his recent award winning arthouse martial arts drama The Assassin my points of reference are limited in knowing what to expect. Daughter Of the Nile came between two trilogies and is said to be a departure from these works and apparently more accessible. I can’t say if it is or isn’t but there is an immediate sense that Hou is a director whose work is an acquired taste.
It would not be too bold to suggest that Wong Kar-wai is a fan of Hou as the DNA of his early films like Happy Together and Days Of Being Wild which at least helped to appreciate the visual style of this film and the breezy air of youth which is prevalent in both works. But where Wong employs added camera tricks and effects to his imagery, Hou keeps things stark and simple.
The events of Hsaio-fang suffering because of Ah-Snag’s reckless folly and Hsaio-yang’s role as piggy-in-the-middle are held together by a bare thread, each major occurrence punctuated by a seemingly innocuous buffer set either at the KFC where Hsaio-yang works, her night class or at home. From this it becomes clear Hou and screenwriter Chu Tien-wen have made a social drama not a crime drama.
Acting in the father’s absence is Hsaio-yang’s grandfather (Tianlu Li), a kindly but rambling old man with a flatulence problem, the puerility of the humour derived from this is at odds with the ongoing dramas of the family’s increasingly chaotic life. At the night school, the teacher (Wu Nian-zhen) is reported for an undisclosed reason which he suggests is down to his political leanings.
From this, it is implied that either the young people of 1980’s Taiwan have no concept of responsibility or respect, or as an older man, Hou is looking at the transition in Taiwan from military rule to democracy from the perspective of the younger generation, the ones who will benefit the most from this seismic political shift. Or I am just too dense to see his real intention.
Should it be the former, Hsaio-yang is the lone exception, but is not held up as a paragon of virtue by which the others are judged. She is trapped between trying to do right by her family, keeping her father sweet and her brother out of trouble, all the while struggling with an infatuation that she knows inside will lead nowhere. Her only escape from reality is pretending to be the heroine from an Egyptian themed manga, although this ultimately has no real bearing on the plot.
Hsaio-yang maybe the fulcrum of the main story but her individual arcs are generally less exciting than the others in her role the reliable safety net for all and sundry. Yet the actual drama of Ah-Sang’s ill-fated romantic dalliances and the collateral damage incurred by Hsaio-fang is equally understated, almost to the point of inertia, which is rather true of the whole film and for one that runs just 93 minutes this isn’t a positive.
I can’t say if Hou doesn’t do violence in his films but the Triads on Ah-Sang’s trail are decidedly low on the intimidation factor whilst their actions are almost comical. A drive-by shooting is filmed at a distance and the gun sounds are cartoonish at best; we only know about Hsaio-fang being attacked when he arrives home covered in blood.
What Hou does do is paint evocative pictures with the slightest movements, often relying on small details to make the scene matter more. One stand out moment comes when Hsaio-yang screams off camera following a nightmare and only a fish tank is on screen; every fish jumps at the sound of the scream.
Through the lens of cinematographer Chen Huai-en, the vibrancy of Taiwan’s nightlife is beautifully captured, suffused with the youthful vigour of the main cast, although the 80’s fashions haven’t held up well under the scrutiny of this HD transfer. Similarly, the film lacks the sense of urgency a story like this demands, the laconic approach compromising the necessary punch to the drama.
Hou cast Taiwanese pop singer Lin Yang in the central role of Hasio-yang and she does a good job, dispelling any notions she was hired just for her pretty face. Hsaio-yang is the only character we have any real sympathy for and want a happy ending for, but we are just as resigned to it not happening as she is.
Regretfully I didn’t get as much out of Daughter Of the Nile as I had hoped, but it would seem that Hou Hsiao-hsien is a director whose works will be a little out of my range of affinity. One strictly for those already familiar with Hou’s oeuvre I fear.
Tony Rayns Interview
Rating – ** ½
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