Blu-ray Review: Daughter of the Nile (1987)

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Following a trio of films inspired by the memories of Taiwanese New Wave director Hou Hsiao-hsien and his collaborators (which can perhaps be best described as a thematic trilogy about living with the rule of martial law under the Kuomintang government), 1987's Daughter of the Nile found Hou embracing the creative bounty of present day Taipei as a city stuck in both the past and present.

Widely considered a transitional work in that it moved the filmmaker into the modern era and also flirted with the crime genre which was so popular in the youth culture representative of his main characters, Daughter nonetheless still found its narrative arc in memory. Finding inspiration in the experiences of its screenwriter Chu T'ien-wen, a novelist who frequently wrote for Hou Hsiao-hsien, the film is rich in authenticity.

Still unafraid to dive into pop culture, Daughter of the Nile took its name from a character in the Japanese manga series Crest of the Royal Family, which was a favorite of the film's leading lady, pop singer turned actress Yang Lin. Chronicling the adventures of a young woman thrust into a very different time and place, the film derives obvious - if largely metaphorical and thematic – inspiration with the titular manga.

Although he hoped to find the commercial and critical acclaim missing from his previous pictures, which were diminished as simply style over substance, Hou was initially disappointed by Daughter of the Nile. Yet while he dismissed as something made more for introducing musician Yang Lin to cinema than anything else, the film's importance as an early Taiwanese New Wave masterwork and a precursor to his future epics has grown significantly over the years.

More than thirty years since its screen debut, it's been given a lush 4K restoration on DVD and Blu-ray as part of Cohen Media Group's Contemporary Classics series. This existential tale about a hardworking young woman struggling to hold her increasingly-at-odds family together uses all of the tools at Hou's disposal to drive home not only the plot strands about our heroine's crush on her gangster brother's friend but also its themes of cultural ennui.

Although Yang Lin's character does her best to break free, patch up, and save the men in her family who are on opposite sides of the law from start to finish, in Daughter of the Nile she's given little control over the film's foreshadowed tragedies.

Seemingly out of place in her surroundings even when she's in the rooms of her home, which we're often shown shot largely as disparate locations rather than one distinct setting, Hou Hsiao-hsien frequently lets the cinematography tell the story.

Much like the heroine in Andrea Arnold's 2009 film Fish Tank, Yang Lin's Daughter is symbolically likened to the fish in the tank we sometimes see just off to the side of the frame, who also appear to be doing their best to listen in on the comings and goings of family members.

Pulling the lens so far back that it feels as though we are eavesdropping right along with our lead throughout, Daughter of the Nile also makes creative use of music with songs ranging from "Big Spender" to "Walk Like an Egyptian" that help to color in the lines of its enigmatic characters while also pointing out the increasing Westernization and cultural confusion of Taipei.

And while it's easy to attribute the emphasis on music to its pop singer star Yang Lin (whose off screen music appears on the soundtrack), before he turned to Daughter, Hou had been planning to make a film about the Chinese opera, so it doesn't take a stretch of the imagination to see how his research may have inspired the dominant role of music as libretto.

Best appreciated on the biggest screen you can find and with the aid of a powerful sound system, this gorgeous Blu-ray release from Cohen gives us the very best version of the feature that we have seen so far. Boasting feature length commentary from film scholar and historian Richard Suchenski, Daughter of the Nile also offers viewers a fascinating forty-two minute interview with noted Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns.

And while the contemplative, novelistic work offers a terrific introduction to the Taiwanese New Wave along with director Hou Hsiao-hsien (and additionally makes a thrilling double feature with the Criterion Collection release of Hou colleague Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day), it also makes us wish that more pictures from this era will be given the TLC Blu-ray treatment soon.

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