Throughout his 1987 film Daughter of the Nile, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s compositions arrange walls, doors, and windows as frames within a frame, visually trapping characters under the weight of their relationships and responsibilities. Views of a bustling Taipei are nominally larger, yet they too ultimately feel cramped, with the city’s overwhelming traffic and pervasiveness of neon signs speaking to a major social transition within Taiwan, from a traditional national identity to one informed by globalized conformity. That transition compounds the pressure placed on individuals, further fragmenting their own journeys of self-discovery.
Hou’s focus here is the Lin family, represented chiefly by Hsiao-yang (Lin Yang), a young woman left in charge of her siblings in the wake of her mother and older brother’s deaths, and by the absence of her father (Fu Sheng Tsui), who works in another province and returns home only on occasion. Tutoring her child sister despite herself being in remedial night school, Hsiao-yang must also keep an eye on her other brother, Hsiao-fang (Jack Kao), who’s swiftly falling into a life of crime. Hsiao-yang’s anxieties are mitigated, however, by her attraction to Hsiao-fang’s gangster friend, Ah-san (Fan Yang). While struggling to watch over her family, Hsiao-yang also feels the urges of a teenager in a rapidly Westernizing society, regularly heading off with friends to listen to pop records or shoot fireworks on a beach.
In order to mark how the passage of time changes the dynamics between characters, Hou recycles many of the same camera setups. This is most evident in the shots that peer into the Lin family kitchen and out the screen door leading outside. The film’s opening flashback shows Hsiao-yang receiving a stolen Walkman from Hsiao-fang, and her silent disapproval as she watches him unpack his loot turns to eagerness when he shows her the device. Hsiao-yang’s gradual slide into delinquency is then tracked by scenes depicting her kid sister sitting at the kitchen table requesting help with homework as Hsiao-yang shouts answers from outside while staring off into the distance and Hsiao-yang not responding to the the child’s later requests because she’s blaring music in her room. Hou’s timelines are often difficult to sort out given his oblique approach to plot, but such repetitions act as anchors for the narrative, offering clear markers of the characters’ emotional progressions.
Sandwiched as it is between the two major trilogies in Hou’s canon—the first (A Summer at Grandpa’s, A Time to Live and a Time to Die, and Dust in the Wind) focused on the filmmaker’s personal memories, and the second (A City of Sadness, The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women) on Taiwan’s fraught history—Daughter of the Nile is often overlooked. Yet in its elegiac, ambivalent view of neon-streaked city streets and youth floundering in a unfathomably huge cultural transition, it points the way toward Hou’s later films like Goodbye South, Goodbye and Millennium Mambo. The film is also one of Hou’s most accessible works, its depiction of angst-ridden, Westernizing youth fitting well within contemporaneous Taiwanese New Wave cinema while showcasing the director’s formal idiosyncrasy.
Sourced from a 4K restoration, Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray looks marvelous. Colors are rich throughout—evident in the plethora of neon lights, the orange glow of heat lamps in the KFC where Hsiao-yang works, and the rosy tint inside a tearoom fittingly called the Pink House. Scenes set in Taipei's rural outskirts are cool with natural tones, clearly rendering the drab settings that Hsiao-yang wishes to escape. The disc's sound is spottier, with the mono track retaining a significant tinny quality that occasionally washes out in a wall of hiss when the volume crescendos. Despite such instances of white noise, the track is mostly stable, and the moments that are marked by such noise inadvertently reflect the chaotic din of modern city life that the film examines.
On his audio commentary track, film scholar Richard Suchenski thoroughly explores Daughter of the Nile's themes and social context, noting at one point the accurate depiction of Taiwanese classes that are devoted to the instruction of classic Chinese literature. Sometimes, Suchenski merely explains what's happening in the film, which will be invaluable for anyone struggling with Hou Hsiao-hsien's elliptical approach to his themes and characters. Critic Tony Rayns appears in a 42-minute interview where he offers a similarly exhaustive account of the film and its place in Hou's canon. Trailers for the film's original and restored releases are also included.
A Hou Hsiao-hsien film on Blu-ray would be a celebration-worthy event no matter its actual quality, but Cohen’s excellent transfer and quality features cement one of the director’s most accessible works as an early highlight of the year’s home-video releases.