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Gangster's Daughter, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Growing up with a gangster for a father can, in fact, be a lot of fun."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: It's kind of delightful how relatively non-melodramatic "The Gangster's Daughter" is, and how its comedy isn't broad slapstick and goofs on Tong tropes. Instead, it plays off how much the father and daughter instantly connect and find they have a lot in common, making for a warm movie that still has room for a lot of laughs and a naturally evolving look at how father Keigo's life is not a perfect fit for daughter Shaowu.

14-year-old Shaowu (a nickname for Shinwu) has been living on Kinmen Island for about ten years, ever since her mother moved them there to get them away from Taipei, where father Keigo (Jack Kao Kuo-hsin) had been rising in the organization of Boss TIgu (Ma Yue-fung). They are reunited briefly at the funeral of Shaowu's mother, but Shaowu (Ally Chiu Si-chin) continues to live with her grandmother (Wu Min) until an incident at school has them strongly suggesting she transfer to Taipei. So she does, meeting Keigo's men Dreamer (Lawrence Ko Yu-luen) and Goldie (Kao Meng-chieh) and his girlfriend MIss Coco (Stephenie Lim Mei-ching). And while they get along fairly well, Keigo finds that his desire to provide a safe environment for Shaowu is increasingly at odds with Tigu's decision to move into hard drugs.

There are lots of things to like here, but the bedrock of the film is the lead pair's note-perfect performances. Jack Kao's Keigo has the look of a Takeshi Kitano gangster, but reveals a very likable dad when the dark glasses come off, with a sense that he really doesn't like intimidation, but is instead oddly sensible. Kao is good at being tripped up by unfamiliar situations without looking foolish, and he manages to be quite funny when frustrated by the two well-meaning but not nearly so capable people below him.

Shaowu, on the other hand, is a sly, clever tomboy, and Ally Chiu Si-chin finds the key to her defiant charm almost immediately. She's got a great half-smile when she knows she's wrapped someone around her finger and a sense of fearlessness that can range from endearing to explosive. Chiu shows a great sense of how this fearlessness can bring out not just Shaowu's curiosity and exuberance, but also a sense of justice that coexists uneasily with her natural anger at her father's initial distance after she lost her mother. There's a great scene of Shaowu at what her father really does for a living to her guidance counselor that is on the one hand played for laughs as Kao double-takes but upon closer examination shows how Shaowu both enjoys her identity as a gangster's kid and wants to make her dad squirm. It's a key scene that hints at some of the more tumultuous aspects of their relationship, even if it is a bit atypical: Most of the time, they click together in a way that shows how much they reflect each other even as he's finding that having her around is bringing his better side out.

Director Chen Mei-jun has spent much of her career making documentaries, and it helps her in terms of finding a keen eye for locations - the contrast between Kinmen island and Taipei is subtle for non-natives, but she uses cues like the difference in airport size to hammer home how relatively isolated the former is, and integrates its history of being on the frontline of battles between Taiwan and the People's Republic to quickly give the audience an idea of what this girl who explores abandoned tunnels and collects signs warning about minefields is like. As much as there is a great deal of gangster bombast in the climax, perhaps the most lasting image from that part of the film is Shaowu watching a caterpillar march across the ground in front of her eyes, letting her and us ponder what she is going to be if and when she gets to the other side of that situation.

Perhaps the most impressive thing Chen and writer Hua Po-jung manage is the trick of using tragedy to start a comedy and then shifting tones along the way without losing its essential personality. It's perhaps a bit of a cheat that the audience never really sees Shaowu's mother clearly - the implication being that her grandmother has been the primary parental figure even before the film started - but even so, the film is a fairly light drama from the start, although Chen and Hua seed the elements that will push the gang-related material forward as something akin to goofs until what was funny earlier starts to tighten around the characters, so that when the shooting starts it's part of their world without undercutting what had been funny earlier. That's tripped films that seemed like they could handle it up before, and it's great to see this one reach its end still working.

"The Gangster's Daughter" is far from the first attempt to cross the coming-of-age film with the gangster movie, although its particular focus on the father-daughter relationship and entertaining take on fish-out-of-water material make it feel fairly fresh. It's good all around, although it shines when Chiu and Kao get a chance to make stock characters their own.

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originally posted: 07/06/17 03:28:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Mei-Juin Chen

Written by
  Po-jung Hua

  Jack Kao
  Ally Chiu

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