'The Gangster's Daughter': Film Review | Hawaii International Film Festival 2017

Courtesy of the Hawaii International Film Festival
An unconventional take on a well-worn genre.

Documentary filmmaker Chen Mei-juin’s narrative debut is a coming-of-age drama set in Taipei’s criminal underworld.

Veteran Taiwanese documentarian Chen Mei-juin (Shaolin Ulysses: Kungfu Monks in America) effortlessly pivots 180 degrees to deliver a nuanced narrative of growing up on the other side of the law in The Gangster’s Daughter. While international exposure will likely be limited to festival play, adventurous viewers may eventually discover the film on home entertainment or streaming formats.

Chen anchors the narrative with a memorable protagonist — sassy, independent teenage Shaowu (Ally Chiu), who gets labeled a tomboy because she’s not afraid of the snakes native to her small island home or standing up to her bullying male classmates. In a rare sentimental mood, she offhandedly admits, “I’m my grandmother’s kid.” That odd turn of phrase represents her situation in a nutshell: Since her gangster dad Keigo (Jack Kao) departed years ago, she’s been raised primarily by her grandma and now that her mom has passed, they have only each other. Shaowu’s innate rebelliousness lands her in trouble again soon enough though. Facing expulsion from school, she accepts the less dishonorable alternative: moving to Taipei to live with her dad, whom she will only address as Keigo.

At this point, the film’s setup could easily diverge toward tearjerk-y melodrama or violent crime saga, but Chen takes it in a natural if somewhat unexpected direction: straight-up coming-of-age drama. With a reserved observational style developed while shooting more than a half-dozen documentaries, Chen gently probes Shaowu’s emotional maturation without attempting to overexplain every narrative beat along the way.  

Keigo turns out to be monumentally unprepared for sudden responsibility, forced to quickly make a series of lifestyle adjustments and rearrange his cramped apartment to accommodate Shaowu. He’s secretly pleased to be parenting again after so many years, although he sees no reason to conceal his somewhat unusual form of employment. Keigo’s gig running protection rackets, gambling dens and hostess bars for his boss doesn’t faze Shaowu at all — she’s already well-immersed in outlaw culture after watching countless TV gangster movies and soon befriends her dad’s two young enforcers. After the pair cross a crooked cop and drag Keigo into inevitable rounds of retribution and escalation though, Shaowu’s opportunity for a semblance of stability suddenly teeters on the brink of disaster.

What’s surprising about Po Jung Hua’s script isn’t that long-neglected Shaowu attempts to make a family wherever she can find one, but that her newfound circle of friends so readily accepts her. Keigo’s girlfriend offers her advice for getting along with her dad, the gangmembers treat her like a kid sister and Keigo’s boss even shows up at her family birthday party with a big gift. Shaowu responds with similar displays of affection, tempered by a lingering reticence to entirely trust her father and his sometimes poorly considered decisions.

Chiu, who has logged most of her screen time on Taiwanese TV dramas, really comes into her own with Chen’s feature. At once vulnerable and defiant, she embodies both the teen’s youthful energy and maturing fatalism, readily adopting the nickname “Shaowu the Bad” (the film’s original title) to demonstrate her contempt for authority and her alliance with Keigo and his underworld associates.

Taiwanese industry veteran Kao’s quietly accomplished performance lends the heavily tattooed Keigo a certain contemplative reserve that belies his unwavering nerve and lethal skill set. The fact that he’s better prepared to take on rival crooks than he is to deal with his own daughter’s growing pains only makes the character that much more endearing.

Chen’s camera appears completely immersed in the rural setting of Shaowu’s bucolic island home, then makes a persuasive transition to Taipei’s crowded back alleys and garishly lit nightclubs, reflecting her protagonist’s own journey. 

Production companies: Wild Dog Productions, Together Studios
Distributor: CatchPlay
Cast: Jack Kao, Ally Chiu, Kao Meng Chieh, Ko Yu Luen, Lin Mei Zhen
Director: Chen Mei-juin
Screenwriter: Po Jung Hua
Producer: Roger Liu
Director of photography: Ming Wang
Editor: Chen Po-Wen
: Lim Giong
Venue: Hawaii International Film Festival

105 minutes