It’s a rare filmmaker whose movies give the impression of nothing happening when everything is happening, and that qualifier suits Hou Hsiao-hsien just fine: He’s one of a kind, the type who gets away with checking influences in his work because his work metastasized into cinema worth praising as “original” a long, long time ago. Name-drop “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”when chatting up “The Assassin” all you like, but it doesn’t change its identity as a Hou film first and a wuxia picture second; compare “Daughter of the Nile,” enjoying its first ever theatrical run in the U.S. thirty years after its release, to “Rebel Without a Cause,” if you like, but you’re comparing oranges to kumquats.
“Daughter of the Nile” has obvious antecedents, the most important among them belonging to Yasujiro Ozu, whose filmography feels like a blueprint for Hou’s career; in 2017, the year that The Criterion Collection gave us the gift of “Good Morning” on Blu-ray, the restoration of “Daughter of the Nile” feels like kismet. If you appreciate Ozu’s knack for wringing fine art out of flatulence, then you’ll marvel at how Hou uses farts as a respite from tragedy. The movie doesn’t go all-in on fart gags, mind you, and only catches its characters conversing on the subject of gas precious few times; it’s tempting, in these moments, to imagine Hou with a hand clapped over his mouth behind the camera, giggling under his breath at his ingenuity in foisting puerile humor upon his assuredly highbrow arthouse audience. As jokes go, that’s the best joke of all.
But the joke isn’t so much a joke as a provision of reality. Hou’s approach to filmmaking is incidental; watch any of his movies, save perhaps for “The Assassin,” and you might wonder if he simply wandered into a space and rolled cameras, quietly, surreptitiously, without attracting even a glance from his subjects. His aesthetic is indiscriminate: If he happens upon characters in discussion on serious affairs, he films them. If he happens upon, say, a grandfather extolling the virtues of a good fart to his granddaughter, he films them, too. “Back home,” grandfather says to his disgusted granddaughter, “all the kids love to hear Grandpa fart.” Hou isn’t picky. It’s all art to him. Even a chat about bodily functions assumes a touching, bombastic poetry in his hands.
We’re getting off course, here, but suffice it to say that Hou is maybe the perfect director to make a movie that drills down past the mundane elements of everyday living and straight to the cruder core of his characters’ humanity. Let’s put that another way: “Daughter of the Nile” might as well accord its cast the luxury of breaking wind (and downwind, no less), because Hou has no qualms showing them at their worst in other, more meaningful capacities. The film begins in the future tense before immediately, and not a little jarringly, reverting to the past, framing itself as a story of reflection; Hou introduces his protagonist, Hsiao-yang (Taiwanese pop star Lin Yang), as an adult, only to then flashback to Hsiao-yang’s upbringing on the outskirts of Taipei. Like the city, like youth itself, the plot is a sprawl contained by the particulars of her home life.
Hsiao-yang is the de facto head of her family; we learn that her mother died prior to the events in the film, that her father, a police officer, works in Chiayi and is thus in and out of the house, that her older brother died in a car crash, and that her remaining brother, Hsiao-fang (Jack Kao), is a burgling, scheming, petty crime committing cad. Apart from Hsiao-yang, only her grandfather (Tianlu Li, one of Hou’s regulars) and her little sister can be described as pure, or upright, or at least just decent. Dad isn’t a bad guy, but he’s hardly ever around. Hsiao-fang is always around, but he’s usually up to no good. The film pivots on Hsiao-yang’s infatuation with one of Hsiao-fang’s cohorts, Ah-sang (Fan Yang), a connection that scarcely deepens but draws her closer and closer to the dangerous life her brother flirts with.
The film draws its title from a Japanese manga, “Crest of the Royal Family,” Hsiao-yang’s preferred escape from the rigors of living; interstitial images composed of hieroglyphics and animal-identifying deities, accompanied by Hsiao-yang’s narration, serve as the film’s bookends, with the text scarcely referenced throughout the rest of its running time. The kinship Hsiao-yang feels for the comic, in which an American girl is magically transplanted from her time to ancient Egypt and inevitably falls head over doomed heels for a comely young pharaoh, is a multifaceted motif: Reading affords her well-earned respite from existential chaos, but the respite never lasts long. The chaos is overwhelming. Hou, of course, is a disciplined craftsman, and as such the film maintains a prevailing sense of peace even in its most turbulent scenes. Gangland shootings feel as routine as rainstorms, though it helps that Hou prefers to keep his violence elliptical.
We don’t quite understand who is being shot at, or why. Maybe we know the characters, but Hou holds his viewers at arm’s length from them, such that the circumstances of their injuries read as mysterious. The distance is appropriate. Hsiao-yang is our anchor. She lives under the same roof as her brother, but she seems to hardly know him beyond his criminal endeavors. “Daughter of the Nile” features fits and spurts of barbarism, removed from Hsiao-yang’s understanding of her own sibling.
The obfuscatory effect works; there’s a block between us and the film’s specifics, but the story is easily understood regardless. We don’t need the mechanisms that drive Hsiao-fang’s crooked enterprises. We don’t need to know why Hsiao-yang works at Kentucky Fried Chicken, or how she came to develop a crush on Ah-sang. We don’t even need to get why her father works in a totally different city. Hou’s presentation is artistically blunt: He treats the stuff of “Daughter of the Nile” as a matter of fact. Its inscrutability is essential to its power as narrative and its beauty as cinema. [A-]