Monday, October 23, 2017

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Daughter of the Nile

The heroine of the long-running manga series Crest of the Royal Family is a lot like the British nurse in the Outlander franchise, but she traveled back to ancient Egypt. Young Lin Hsiao-yang both identifies with her and fantasizes of being her. However, she is very definitely stuck in the present day of mid-1980s Taipei in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s unfairly overlooked (including by Hou himself) Daughter of the Nile (trailer here), which returns to theaters for its 30th anniversary, freshly restored in 4K.

Sadly, Lin’s eldest brother died sometime before the film commences, but his loss is constantly felt throughout the narrative. He was the only family member who could keep their middle sibling Lin Hsiao-fang in line. Brother Fang was always a thief and a gambler, but he was good to their mother during her fatal struggle with cancer and also looks out for his little sisters reasonably well. His gangster-gigolo friend Ah-sang is a different story, but Sister Yang falls for him anyway.

For a while, Ah-sang expatriates to America, but it was apparently a bad experience. Lin’s brother paid for the return ticket, but neither speaks of it in any great detail. Ah-sang comes home just as the gang appears poised for success, having opened an upscale restaurant as a semi-front. Yet, Ah-sang’s erratic nature and Hsiao-fang’s increasingly compulsive gambling threaten everyone’s future.

It is strange Nile became the red-headed step-child of Hou’s filmography, because it feels like a perfectly representative example of his style. He would touch on somewhat similar themes in Millennium Mambo, but it would be particularly interesting to watch this film in dialogue with Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day. Both films follow disadvantaged high school students relegated to the night sessions of over-crowded facilities, as they engage it varying degrees of crime. Although the political situation was much more relaxed in the 1980s than the late 1950s, a reckless accusation could still lead to dire consequences.

Poor Taiwanese pop star Lin Yang got a bad rap for her lead performance as Lin Hsiao-yang. Her work is tightly controlled and so restrained she can hardly breathe, but that makes her character so terribly human. Ultimately, it is quite a poignant portrayal. Hou regular Jack Kao is also terrific as the charismatic but self-defeating Hsiao-fang. Yet, Li Tan-lu steals so many scenes as their grandfather, he continued on to play several more grandpas in subsequent Hou films and served as the subject of his bio-pic, The Puppetmaster.

Even in Taipei, the eighties looked like the eighties. In fact, it is a very 1980s kind of story, focusing on several young people struggling to make good while holding together some semblance of a family. This was the Hou film that almost got away, but fortunately it has been restored and given a second chance to resonate with viewers. Highly recommended, Daughter of the Nile opens this Friday (10/27) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.