Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Neglected Gem #74: Daughter of the Nile (1987)

I’m not too surprised that Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s moving and memorable drama Daughter of the Nile (1987) isn’t highly regarded by the cinematic cognoscenti who so admire his work. Compared to his best known and praised films – Dust in the Wind (1986), City of Sadness (1989), The Puppetmaster (1993) – Daughter of the Nile is a quick ride of a movie, mostly devoid of Hou’s static long shots, (overly) leisurely pacing and slow buildup to mood and emotion. (Significantly, film programmer James Quandt, who wrote the film notes for the recent Hou retrospective at Toronto's TIFF Cinematheque at Bell Lightbox (formerly Cinematheque Ontario), never mentions the film; it is one of the few Hou titles not referenced in his lengthy piece.) In short, Daughter of the Nile is a film that those filmgoers who like their movies to actually move will be happy with. Not incidentally, it’s also a rich, evocative tale that lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.

Boiled down to its essence, Daughter of the Nile is the poignant story of unrequited love set amidst a world of young people, some of whom are petty gangsters, much like the group in Martin Scorsese’s visceral Mean Streets (1973). Lin Hsiao-yang (Taiwanese pop star Lin Yang) is, as the movie begins, a sensitive 19-year-old student working part time in a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Taipei and pining for petty thug Ah-sang (Fan Yang), the best friend of her older brother Lin Hsaio-fang (Jack Kao), who is also involved in shady dealings. Daughter of the Nile (a reference to an ancient Egyptian-themed manga she is fond of reading) tells her story, which she narrates after the fact of the life-altering events in the movie – the film itself often seems like a dream-like fable of a time long ago – while offering a panoramic, subtly scathing portrait of a culture that has abandoned tradition and has lost the ability to make the human connections many of us take for granted. (The late Taiwanese director Edward Yang, who was a friend of Hou’s, approached his characters in a completely different way in his masterful, joyous Taipei-set Yi Yi (2000). In Yi Yi, they try to connect between themselves and often succeed, but Yang’s colourful, appealing Taipei is not the indifferent, even cold and forbidding city that Hou casts it as in his earlier film, beautifully shot by Chen Huai-en.)

Lin Yang’s riveting performance as the mopey, quiet girl anchors Daughter of the Nile. She has a highly expressive face but it’s in the yearning way she gazes at Ah-sang, completely incapable of telling or showing him how she feels about him that is tragic and sad in equal measure. Not that Ah-sang is such a prize. He usually acts oblivious to Lin’s feelings for him – he’s well aware of them – and practically throws his relationship with an older woman in her face. He also adamantly resists the concerned admonishments of her brother, who constantly rails at him to pay his debts and not piss off the hardcore dangerous gangsters who are in their orbit. Ah-sang is a less flamboyant version of Robert De Niro’s Johnny in Mean Streets, but no less self-destructive and damaged.

Lin Yang and Fan Yang in Daughter of the Nile.

The family, usually seen as the apex of Chinese life, is also a fractured one. Lin has lost her mother (to cancer) and oldest brother (in an accident) and now has to deal with a younger sister who she often minds, who is acting out by lying and stealing. Her somewhat negligent father (Tsui Fu-sheng) works in the country’s South to help pay the bills. It’s left to Grandfather (Tianlu Li), a comic figure prone to smelly farts, to offer advice but it’s not very helpful. (The mildly ribald humour in such a supremely sad movie is welcome.) And Taipei, as backdrop to the goings on in the movie, seems congested and busy, but also more than a little forbidding and rarely beautiful. (One carefree morning on the beach with Lin and her pals is the only ray of sunshine in the whole film.) The fancy nightclub where her brother Lin, who co-owns it, and Ah-sang hang out plays American Golden Oldies of the 40s, a potent symbol of American influence in the city, also apparent in the ubiquitous KFC. But the reality of the American Dream that they pine for doesn’t live up to its reality. Almost in passing it’s remarked that when Ah-sang and his girlfriend decamped to the States, they had to be rescued by Lin’s brother who paid their way home.

Though Daughter of the Nile isn’t heavy on the politics, it is a genuine factor in the movie. (Lin’s teacher is fired because of a complaint made by one of the students, but he tells her class it’s because he’s not ideologically ‘pure’. Presumably he’s perceived as communist in a largely anti-Communist society. In the film’s time frame, Taiwan is still transitioning to full democracy from military rule.) This is a potent story of love, between men and women, between friends and within Lin’s family that knows it needs to stick together as a bulwark against the impersonal city it lives in. (Daughter of the Nile was Hou's first contemporary set feature.) One scene of Lin and her brother where she stitches him up after a violent incident and he speaks a bit about their feelings, is so touching and heartbreaking. The beautiful sequence set during Lin’s 20th birthday party, held at the club, reverberates with unspoken feelings and repressed emotions and her realization, presented as a recurring flashback, of how she felt about her life. There is also a strong element of fate in the movie – as it was with Johnny in Mean Streets, what happens to Ah-sang is almost pre-ordained, but not for that reason any less powerful.

Admittedly, the movie is not flawless. The violence, except for one shot near the end, plays out too matter-of-factly to be effective. It needed more of the disturbing oomph of Mean Streets or The Sopranos. And the plotting is a bit rushed at times. Yet imperfect and jagged as it is, Daughter of the Nile has an emotional heft and impact lacking in even Hou’s best films (Dust in the Wind, City of Sadness), which despite his stellar direction have always struck me as a bit too controlled and even antiseptic. Certainly it’s the only one of Hou’s movies that I’ve felt compelled to see twice.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he will be starting a new course beginning May 1 entitled A Filmmaker/A Country. The course will look at various great filmmakers (Akira Kurosawa, Francesco Rosi, Jafar Panahi and others) who have come to represent their country, at home and abroad, simply because they evince a deep curiosity about what makes their homeland tick, in terms of its people, its history, and its interactions with outsiders and their influences.

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