Film Review: Daughter of the Nile

Young adults face compromised futures in a changing Taipei. Early drama from Hou Hsiao-hsien receives a belated release here in a new restoration.
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A relatively early effort from critical darling Hou Hsiao-hsien, Daughter of the Nile is getting a belated theatrical release in the U.S. following a comprehensive restoration. A study of youthful ennui in Taiwan, the movie was part of a wave of Asian films depicting the cramped futures facing a generation that was losing its ties to the past.

Screenwriter Chu Tien-wen's plot centers on Lin Hsaio-yang (played by pop star Lin Yang), charged with holding her family together after her mother dies of cancer and her father leaves for work in the south. An indifferent student at night school, Hsaio-yang works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken and watches out for her younger sister Hsaio-wei and brother Hsiao-fang (Jack Kao).

Hsaio-yang has a crush on Ah-sang (Fan Yang), part of a second-rate gang running a glitzy but failing restaurant. Ah-sang starts an affair with the wife of a triad member, provoking a small-scale war that leaves some bruised feelings and minor casualties.

Daughter of the Nile (the title refers to a time-travel manga that Hsaio-yang and her friends read) deals in the international currency of cool in the 1980s: cigarettes, teased hair, jackets with big shoulders, bland pop songs, crowded nightclubs, motor scooters, empty expressions, missed connections. Wong Kar Wai used similar elements in As Tears Go By, as did Edward Yang in Taipei Story.

Hou brings a sense of calm to his story, a quiet equanimity that gives equal weight to a doddering grandfather, a jaded teacher, a lost gangster. These characters are far removed from the center of Taipei. They live on the fringes, attend poor schools and eat fast food. Despite her love songs and comic books, Hsiao-yang has never experienced happiness, and isn't likely to. But she perseveres, in the director's hands earning our respect.

Although it was never released theatrically here, the movie helped build Hou Hsiao-hsien's reputation. Subsequent films like The Puppetmaster and Goodbye South, Goodbye gathered awards at film festivals. 2001's Millennium Mambo, starring Shu Qi, returned to some of the themes in Daughter of the Nile. Hou's last film, The Assassin, also with Shu Qi, was a critical sensation.

Daughter of the Nile is now playing at the Quad Cinema in New York City. Click here for cast and crew information.