Daughter is Corey Deshon’s directorial debut.  Known for his work as a writer and consulting producer on the TV show A Million Little Things (ABC, 2017-2023) and his short films, Voice (2017) and To Police (2015), Daughter is Deshon’s first foray into the horror genre. However, like his other work, his first feature film is concerned with social issues, here the subjectivity of reality is contained within a perversion of the conservative idealisation of the family: father, mother, son and daughter; the roles of which are determined by the patriarchal father whose word is literally law as it retruths the ‘his’ version of the truth.  

While Daughter is marketed as a horror film, having had its world premiere at Frightfest 2022, it is much more a sustained interrogation into the bourgeois family in which the patriarchal father imposes his version of reality onto the members of his family. Daughter shows us how this subjugation takes place: the family here is constructed through force with the abduction of an appropriate surrogate for the mother, son, and daughter. The film starts with the death of one daughter and the abduction of the next, constructing women as inherently substitutable, whose identity lies only with relation to the father and the son. 

Still from Daughter, Image © Lightbulb Film Distribution
Still from Daughter, Image © Lightbulb Film Distribution

The new Daughter (Vivien Ngô) does not easily concede to the father’s demands: mutinously refusing to speak or eat for the first few days while she is chained up, escape is impossible. All the roles in the film are symbolic: the Father is played by Casper Van Dien, the Mother, Elyse Dinh, and the Son, Ian Alexander. In this family, the Father is the embodiment of white privilege, constructing his family from those at the margins, the Mother and Daughter are Vietnamese, while the Son is American-Vietnamese. The Mother and Daughter sometimes use Vietnamese to converse, this ‘female’ language functions in a similar way to the use of sign language in Jane Campion’s The Piano between the mother and daughter: patriarchy cannot read the signs or decipher the words thus this language functions as an act of resistance against the law of the Father. The choice of Casper Van Dien as the Father is interesting as he is mainly noted for his muscled-up action parts in films such as Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, US: 1997) and Tarzan of the Lost City (Carl Schenkel, US: 1998) through which he rose to fame. While Casper Van Dien is the epitome of white patriarchy and privilege, Ian Alexander’s anomalous gender identity was constituted through their identification as non-binary functions as a meta-fictional challenge to fixed gender categories, as well as insisting on the intersectional nature of identity. 

Still from Daughter, Image © Lightbulb Film Distribution
Still from Daughter, Image © Lightbulb Film Distribution

While the Father attempts to maintain control over his wayward family, the Daughter plots against him, making the Son believe that a play they are putting on for the Father’s birthday is one which honours the Father rather than subverts his rule. Although it becomes a bit too much like The OA (Netflix, 2016-2019) towards the end (which Ian Alexander also starred in), a show that I struggled with, there is a great deal to recommend this film. Despite its low budget and small cast, Deshon manages to impress as a director. Shot on 16 mm film, strategically composing scenes using framing and blocking, Deshon creates a sense of unremitting dread in which we are not sure what the eventual denouement will be. Inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” which was influenced by her lover Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism, Daughter is a demonstrative pedagogy of what de Beauvoir means when she states “to will oneself free is also to will others free” (1947). The title of the film pertains to this, after all, it is the Daughter’s will to be free, that sets the others free in one way or another. And it is only by retelling the Father’s story in order to show its falsity that this is possible. 

It is hard not to see this film as a reflection of what is ongoing in the US since the 2020 election and the emergence of the Big Lie. Christian nationalists and QAnon followers have found common ground in their sanctifying Trump as God’s ambassador on earth, whose fight is against the ideology of the left as epitomised by the demonic democrats. The Father could easily be interpreted as a fictionalisation of Trump, especially through the retruthing of his subjective reality. Daughter, though, offers hope. Those that are despised by the right, constructed as non-human including migrants, people of colour and trans people, are the very embodiment of freedom that underpins the true nature of democracy. 

Still from Daughter, Image © Lightbulb Film Distribution
Still from Daughter, Image © Lightbulb Film Distribution

It is not necessary to subscribe to this type of metaphorical meaning to enjoy Daughter. The small cast are convincing in their symbolic roles, Ian Alexander as the perpetually happy Son is particularly memorable especially in opposition to the morose and mutinous Daughter, as carefully crafted by Vivien Ngô. Elyse Dinh as the downtrodden Mother who tries, but fails, to save the children from the wrath of the Father, is also well cast. Casper Van Dien also plays his part in the ensemble, as the menacing Father whose purpose is the creation of a perfect family, totally subservient to the rule and the law of the Father. Daughter is thankfully far removed from some of the worst excesses of so-called torture porn films which focus on the incarcaration and torture of a young woman – the typical damsel in distress of the gothic – offering a subtle but effective contemporary horror film in which the Father does not know best. 


Rating: 4 out of 5.

Written by Dr Colette Balmain

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, and art, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop / K-music, and Asian music in general, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, music, and arts, worldwide.

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