From the perspective of a certain kind of rarefied, globalized movie nerd, we’re living in the era of Hou, even if most culture consumers don’t know it. Hou Hsiao-hsien has become something of the art-house-film gold standard worldwide in the last few decades, building one of the world’s most rigorous and beautiful oeuvres, and schooling us all on slow-cinema eloquence, long-shot heartbreak and stories you have to decipher, teasing them out from the messiness of life. It seems like we still under-appreciate him.
The man’s back catalogue — he made 10 movies before the festival torch that was The Puppetmaster (1993) — has never been properly released here, and much of it, like much of Taiwanese cinema, has not been well-tended. Daughter of the Nile (1987) is typically underseen, and now perfectly restored, a quintessential modern family tragedy we walk into like uninvited and invisible guests. The Lins live on the weedy, ramshackle fringes of Taipei; 20-year-old Hsiao-yang (Yang Lin) is our point person, an honest girl burdened with keeping her entropic family in one piece. Her mother’s gone from cancer, her little sister’s still in grade school, her father (Tsui Fu-sheng) is a chronic reprobate dropping in occasionally from his job in the south, and her big brother (Jack Kao) is a petty crook making a big roll opening a bar with his cronies. A crotchety grandfather — played by real-life puppetmaster and Hou crony Li Tian-lu — provides an extra layer of responsibility.
Devoted to an Ancient Egypt manga series also titled Daughter of the Nile, Hsiao-yang works at KFC and goes to night school and pines for her brother’s no-good gangster buddy (Yang Fan); naturally, her life begins to come apart as the boys’ schemes and betrayals spawn real violence. This is all framed in a timeline jumble that only reveals itself as such in the end, abetted by Hsiao-yang’s rueful retrospective narration. But more to the point, the narrative isn’t laid out for us so much as hidden in the layers of life, seeping into view in Hou’s signature way. No one can create movie space as organically as he does (nothing ever feels set up for the camera), however scores of imitators may still try. It’s lean-in cinema, respecting the regions in the characters’ lives we don’t see and can’t fathom. The Lins’ crumbling house is paradigmatic: we get intimately familiar with its rooms and doorways, yet the actual layout remains mysterious.
Daughter of the Nile is rather pop as Hou goes; there are ample song interludes, and the melodrama surrounding Yang Fan’s baby-faced punk is a little boilerplate. But it’s essential Hou, a key transitional work between the gorgeous but sometimes sentimental early films and the cataract of masterpieces that began with A City of Sadness (1989). It’s hard to imagine a more necessary screening experience this fall.