Daughter of the Nile is Hou Hsiao-Hsien as he was in 1987, at the outset of his imperial phase, beginning to fade down plot in favour of characters, moments, moods. His focal point here is college student Lin (local pop star Lin Yang), born into a family divided by crime and taking refuge in comic-book dreams of the Pharoahs, yet Hou doesn't build a narrative around her so much as surround her with off-kilter observations that collectively suggest a subversion of gangster-movie tropes. (And which remind us this director was trying to clear some elbow room within an Asian cinema increasingly dominated by the gangland fantasies of John Woo, Johnnie To and Wong Kar-Wai.) For starters, our heroine represents an unusual constituency. As students go, she's more bully than bullied, yet Hou shows her as very much a product of her environment. She evidently misses her late brother, a casualty of the underworld, and all she has by way of guidance is a blustering cop father (Tsui Fu-Sheng) forever out on the night shift. From the fact she's got this far with her education - taking a job behind a KFC fryer to support her studies - we sense she's determined to go legit and become a barrier separating the headstrong males of her household, and to provide protection for a younger sister slipping into shoplifting delinquency. An ordinary family home is thus reclaimed as a site as fraught with tension as the palace of Ramesses the Great. Certain authorial tropes soon manifest: time was beginning to get fluid (the brother is both there and not there, yet always on Lin's mind), the pop songs already evocative (given the title and the release date, the Bangles were forever a possibility), the eye for the fashionwear and cigarette brands of late Eighties Taiwan never less than acute. If some of its nightcruising has dated, pangs of everyday longing still push forcefully through certain scenes: should you have a thing for sad-looking women sitting alone in the front windows of restaurants - and have run out of those Wong movies that feed that particular fetish - this one's for you.
Daughter of the Nile is now streaming on MUBI UK.