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In Hou Hsiao-hsien’s underseen Daughter of the Nile (1987), one of the director’s first Taipei-set films, a melancholic listlessness permeates every frame. The city appears to toil leisurely, drifting in an indeterminate space between sleeping and waking. During the opening scene, the camera gazes on Hsiao-yang, played by Taiwanese pop singer Lin Yang. Her impenetrable expressions are wrapped in the soft, diffuse light of dawn filtering through the window panes of the cramped apartment she shares with her family.

Half talking to herself and half confiding in an unseen audience, Hsiao-yang recalls a gift from her older brother Hsiao-fang (Hou’s raffish regular Jack Kao): a red Walkman whose crimson gloss embodies the rapid and enticing urbanisation of Taipei during the late 1980s. In a film that sprawls from one static composition to another, Hsiao-yang’s voice becomes the guiding hand that pieces together the threads of a fragmented and troubled inner life. Her mother has died from cancer and, with her father working in another province, her brother Hsiao-fang has turned to a precarious life of petty crime. The desirable Walkman is the spoils from one of his many nocturnal outings where he leaves with a fearsome wrench and returns gashed and bloodied.

In Daughter of the Nile, nighttime in Taipei has a languid allure that belies wistful and perilous depths. After dusk, the cityscapes sparkle with neon-lit panels of all colours, like glittering rainbow sequins gleaming on black velvet. Taipei nights are for the young and the restless. After her evening classes, Hsiao-yang tags along with her friends to jam-packed clubs where the dance floors quake with the latest Western hits put on full blast. Still, amid the endless flow of cars – the traffic congestion in 1980s Taipei was the focus of many environmental protests – and the swaying bodies at the discotheque, the camera finds a distracted Hsiao-yang, lost and stilted in her own thoughts. Perhaps she is pondering her silent crush on Ah-san (Fan Yang), Hsiao-fang’s gangster friend who is having an illicit affair with the wife of a triad member. Or maybe her mind is clouded by the uncertainties about her own life direction, and that of her younger sister, who is already shoplifting and failing at school.

Daughter of the Nile (1987)

When night falls in Taipei, time seems to stretch to an unknowable infinity. Soaked in fluorescent hues of blues and oranges, the Pink House Café, a bar frequented by Hsiao-fang, replays the same well-worn tape of Western mid-century standards punctuated by the voice of an unknown radio broadcaster announcing that the year is 1949. Far from an idiosyncratic embellishment, in Taiwanese history this temporal marker is loaded with poignancy. Four years after the ending of Japan’s decades-long annexation of Taiwan, in 1949, the Chinese Civil War between the nationalist Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party ended, forcing the Kuomintang-led government of the former to withdraw to Taiwan. Ruling the islands as a single-party state, the Kuomintang also deployed a forbidding martial law in the territory in 1949, which lasted until 1987, the year of Daughter of the Nile’s release.

Hsiao-yang and her friends are too young to have experienced these traumatic post-war events, yet their surroundings are tightly gripped by the ligatures of the past. While much extant writing on Daughter of the Nile has rightly considered the film’s numerous Western pop culture references, the economic and cultural influences from Japan are also conspicuously present in the metropolis. In addition to Hsiaoyang’s Walkman, advertising billboards for Japanese goods and passing mentions of relatives exiled in Japan, the title of Hou’s film is also lifted from the popular manga Crest of the Royal Family. In the graphic novel, Carol, a blue-eyed, blonde-haired American girl, time-travels from the 20th century to ancient Egypt, finding herself in the throes of palace intrigue.

The same confluence of cultural iconographies can be found in Hsiao-yang’s daily life. Serving as a sonic counterpart to The Bangles’ ‘Walk Like an Egyptian,’ which is played over a midsummer seaside romp, is the forlorn titular theme recorded by Lin Yang. All the roads evidently lead to the banks of the mystical Nile. More than a simplistic dichotomy between the East and the West, Hou’s film offers a complex understanding of globalisation. Hsiao-yang’s day job at a KFC branch might come off as monotonous, yet the proliferation of fast-food franchises in Taiwan is also closely associated with Taipei youth culture. In his chapter on the legacy of McDonald’s in Taiwan, in Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia (2006), historian David Y. H. Wu observes that, during the 1980s, American fast-food restaurants were a favourite hangout for the young Taiwanese crowd, thus incorporating these spaces into the sphere of national identity. Indeed, in Daughter of the Nile, young people study, gossip and even flirt at their local KFC.

Hsiao-yang’s growing alienation additionally hints at the subtle shifting of gender roles that parallels the industrialisation of 1980s Taiwan. Without giving too much away, the already distant men in Hsiao-yang’s life slowly vanish, their absence acknowledged by the film’s visuals in a staggeringly matter-of-fact fashion. As the film closes with a dissolve of Taipei’s skyline into a scroll of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Hsiao-yang’s voiceover solemnly speaks of the Fall of Babylon, which gestures to the unknowable future of Taiwan as well as her own. Carol’s return to modern life in Crest of the Royal Family is eagerly awaited by her brother, but Hsiaoyang is tragically all on her own.