Hsiao-yang Lin (Yang Lin) is a Taiwanese girl in her late teens who has been trying to hold her family together ever since her mother passed away from cancer. This proves difficult when they suffered a later misfortune as the elder brother died as well, and he was the one who would keep the younger brother Hsiao-fang (Jack Kao) in line, so without his beneficial influence the young man has gone off the rails and fallen into criminality. What makes this state of affairs worse is the father of the house (Tsui Fu Sheng) happens to be a police officer, and to see his offspring become a thief and someone he should be arresting is more than anyone can bear...
Director Hou Hsiao-Hsien was taking a critical pasting, accused of being hopelessly self-indulgent, in his native Taiwan when he decided to make a movie focusing on a woman's perspective, or at least the perspective of a young girl who was becoming a woman and starting to realise precisely what her place was in this society. In truth, the filmmaker was accused of making utterly uncommercial art movies right up to and including The Assassin, his martial arts epic that was much-complained about for its disappointing lack of actual action, so it was evident that even at this stage of his career he had found his style and had opted to stick with it through thick or thin, general reaction be damned.
Indeed, you could imagine most viewers who were sat down in front of this would have trouble discerning what the hell was going on, so reserved was its approach: there were gangsters featured, but nothing so vulgar as a shoot-out or a car chase to interrupt the sad-eyed, reflective tone. Be patient and you would begin to pick up the sympathy this had for its protagonist who was discovering she had very little agency in this man's world as all she could do was be at the beck and call of the men in her family, and stand in for her now-absent mother in the household. This was the life of drudgery she had to look forward to, sort of like Cinderella if the Fairy Godmother had never shown up.
Why was it called Daughter of the Nile when it was set in Taiwan and had nothing to do with one of the world's longest rivers? It was the name of Hsiao-yang's favourite manga comic book, a big hit in that part of the East among her peers, and represented in its lead character, who goes back in time to Ancient Egypt and falls in love with Memphis, the Pharaoh destined to die aged twenty-two, the suffocating nature of an existence that has been mapped out by societal concerns and strictures without any hope of kicking back against the rules because there is nowhere to go. Not, as you can see, a barrel of laughs, though some found a sense of humour present in the director's approach in spite of there being precious little to chuckle at in the view of most of those who would see what he had constructed.
Essentially it was the tale of a young gangster, a mere hood, who follows the wrong path in life and receives his comeuppance, only told from the viewpoint of his sister, who is too busy trying to attend to their father, thanks to him getting shot and badly injured in the line of duty, to do anything to rescue her brother from his wretched choices. And to top all of that, you just knew there was nothing the heroine could have done anyway, no matter what her home circumstances were like, because nobody would listen to her, they simply expected her to be the carer in the home to the men and children (she has a younger sister and grandfather to attend to into the thankless bargain) and place her wants and needs as secondary to that. That course she is taking to better herself? Doesn’t matter in the long term (these scenes with the tutor were not so subtle digs at the authorities and their constraining rules that Hou had to negotiate every time he made a movie). The trouble with this was that hope was damn difficult to make out, therefore was not one of the more enriching experiences in film; it wouldn't make you cry, just dejected. Music by Chang Hung-Yi and Cihyuan Ch'en.
[The Eureka Blu-ray has an interview with East Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns as an extra, plus a restored print to ensure it looks and sounds spick and span.]