Michael Joshua Rowin on Daughter of the Nile
Daughter of the Nile (1987) is one of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s least talked about, least studied works, a film nearly invisible among his post-A Time to Live and a Time to Die output. I saw Daughter a number of years ago when it was featured in a Hou retrospective at New York’s Anthology Film Archives, at a time when my only knowledge of the Taiwanese director came from seeing just two of his films, the then currently released Millennium Mambo and A Time to Live and a Time to Die. So eager was I to haphazardly catch up on Hou that I had no idea that with this screening of Daughter I was witnessing a rare event: the film, like so much of Hou’s work, never found initial theatrical distribution in the United States and has never received a release on home video. Despite the critical acclaim and attention lavished on Hou, the very modest attendance at the screening failed to impart the potentially coveted nature of Daughter, whose early foreshadowing of the themes of Millennium, Hou’s first film to be distributed in the U.S., should have made it then, as it is now, ripe for rediscovery.
A major hurdle before such a project of reevaluation is the fact that Hou himself has largely disowned or dismissed Daughter as merely an opportunity for Taiwanese pop star Lin Yang to slum it on screen as a disaffected youth in a teen-oriented drama. Hou’s effort to distance himself from Daughter, coupled with the film’s lack of availability, has no doubt discouraged serious critical appreciation of the film, further overshadowed as it is by being chronologically sandwiched between two of the director’s most revered and canonical successes, Dust in the Wind and City of Sadness. I doubt, however, that I’ll be the critic to stoke an appreciation of this “lost” Hou. Only traces of Daughter remain in my memory (if any assignment has made me reconsider taking up Truffaut’s meticulous file system of film viewing, this is it), but that’s not to say it’s for lack of anything memorable in Daughter. Like so many of my Hou experiences, the traces that do remain are moments powerful, mysterious, and yet straightforward—a nighttime motorcycle ride with Lin Yang’s restless and unmotivated heroine on her way to a beach bonfire where the thematically and tonally appropriate Bangles hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” plays to a scene of midsummer frolic is as youthfully free and melancholically ephemeral as the best of Hou. And even from this lone scene one can notice that Daughter is an odd case of authorial abandonment, if for no other reason than that Hou does everything to make the film as far from a disposable, star-geared, impersonal commodity as possible. Employing his trademark long shots and long takes, Hou disinvests the viewer of comfortable, familiar entryways into the emotional and psychological lives of his characters even as he tailors the “teen” movie to his social and cultural concerns.
Still, Daughter is one of Hou’s most accessible films. Even at the time I saw it, with only two other Hou films for reference, I could tell Daughter was substantially different. In it there are few instances of extreme long takes, and while committed to capturing the quotidian details and slow rhythms of “real life,” the pacing and plotting of the film is tailored to a more conventional narrative filmmaking, at least by the standards of Hou. Commercial demands aside, this scaling back of strict minimalism can be attributed to a tentative approach toward what in 1987 was new subject matter, settings, and characters for the director. Daniel Kasman has identified Daughter as the first in a trilogy of Hou films focused on “Urban Female Youth” before Good Men, Good Women and Millennium Mambo. Daughter is also the first Hou film to take place in Taipei, the capital city to which Hou’s father transplanted his family during the Chinese Civil War before settling in Feng-shan. Hou’s autobiographical and family history films, taking place in the past and in the countryside, are moved to a site of dislocation and disorientation in Daughter. In Olivier Assayas’s 1996 entry for Cinéma de notre temps, HHH—Un portrait de Hou Hsiao-hsien, Hou states, “For my parents, everything was temporary. They were just passing through. This feeling of imminent departure had an effect on me.” Not by coincidence—and not to ignore the possible personal contribution of the film’s sole screenwriter, longtime Hou collaborator T’ien-Wen Chu—Daughter’s story involves a family transplanted to Taipei. With its sudden outbursts of street violence and ubiquitous neon lights signifying industrial anonymity, the city itself seems to wear at the family, motherless and slowly tearing apart due to a rift between father and son. Daughter Hsiao-yang (Yang) survives courtesy of the options given her by industrial capitalism—pop music, manga comics (one of which provides the film with its title), and a job at a fast food restaurant—even as she tangentially becomes drawn into her brother and a gangster love interest’s dealings in the city’s underworld.
Hou, however, refuses to preach the evils of Hsiao-yang’s alienating environment, instead portraying it from his usual remove and observing the confused teen’s navigation of it through an impartial lens, using the film as practice for scenes and motifs that will be further developed in later films—the motorcycle ride points to those of Goodbye South Goodbye, while a brutal crime perpetrated in front of a static-camera long take would be expanded upon just a film later in City of Sadness. The visual continuity between these films suggests they aren’t so far apart, even if Daughter is the renounced one. Kasman believes Hou’s shift from male protagonists in films set in the past to female protagonists in those taking place in the present comes from a clear “line of thought”: “the opportunities missed by the socially empowered males in the mid-twentieth century have given way to modern, contemporary opportunities similarly being missed by Taiwan’s women. . . . Hou sees these new women—strong-willed, romantic, partially socially conscious and vaguely looking for something to do with their lives—as the hope for dragging Taiwanese society out of the qualms of the modern life.” That Hou associates women with contemporary urban settings isn’t surprising—he’s commented that he believes that the virile, tough men of his youth have slowly died out, and that attitude is reflected in the decentralizing of Hou’s gangsters to the margins of narrative.
If woman is the future of man, then Daughter’s themes and immediate imagery would be the future of Hou. In Un portrait, Hou explains, “The films about the past are like out of a storybook. Now I want to pass onto something else. Modern life seems unfathomable, but it all depends on how we look at it. Distance. We have to find the right distance, as with the past.” Daughter may not have perfectly expressed the exact distance Hou was looking for, at least compared to the completely confident balance between sumptuous beauty and chilly detachment of Millennium, but it was the first step on his way there.