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THE GANGSTER’S DAUGHTER (2017) review

September 20, 2017

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To open up the 5th Season of the Asian Pop-Up Cinema, the good folks over at Sophia’s Choice, the non-profit organization that curates choice Asian films and brings them to a semi-annual Chicago film festival, presents “The Gangster’s Daughter” the latest from Taiwanese filmmaker Mei-Juan Chen. From the title, one might think that the first feature-film from a director who’s primarily made documentaries would be about a daughter who takes up the family business much to the dismay of her father, but that would be kind of expected. Instead, this surprisingly soulful and sweet look at an unexpected relationship that develops between an estranged father and daughter offers a unique and engaging mashup of two unlikely genres.

For ten years, spirited and independent 14-year-old Shaowu (Ally Chiu) has been living on Kinmen Island, a place her mother had moved her to in order to be far away from her father, Keigo (Jack Kao Kuo-hsin), who had been working his way up in the crime organization run by Boss TIgu (Ma Yue-fung). Raised by her grandmother (Wu Min), Shaowu only recently met her father at her mother’s funeral, whom she barely knew. When an incident at school finds her transferred to Taipei to live with her father, Shaowu is exposed to a much different world. She meets Dreamer (Lawrence Ko Yu-luen) and Goldie (Kao Meng-chieh) the two guys who report to Keigo, and his girlfriend, Miss Coco (Stephanie Lim Mei-ching). It doesn’t take long for the father and daughter to connect, nor does it take long for Keigo’s criminal dealings to impinge upon that new family life when Tigu decides to transition to dealing drugs.

 

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There’s usually a tendency for a story with such a set-up to give in to certain tropes, but Chen takes what we know of gangster flicks and the coming-of-age tale in a refreshing direction, focusing on who these characters are – from the daughter, to her father the gangster and his two lackeys.  All of the characters in “The Gangster’s Daughter” feel real and genuine, and oddly likable. Shaowu isn’t a bratty, sarcastic teen and Keigo isn’t a sadistic mob boss. She’s a tenderhearted tomboy and he’s a actually quite a sensible guy whose patient is naturally tested by the curious and stubbornness of this new teen who comes into his life.

If this were an American movie, it would play that up the broad comedy in all that, but thankfully Chen mines the humanity of the two main characters here and the performances from Ally Chiu and Jack Kao are really great. Chiu is at her best when she’s portraying Shaowu’s defiance, conveying a level of fearlessness that seems to hide her underlying fear of being bullied or left behind. Kao is best at offering the subtlest shifts in his performance – from quiet realization that produces a chuckle to a somber glance at himself in the mirror. Both actors are easy to connect with and follow, something that is welcome considering the two genres their respective characters are from.

How the story concludes may seem inevitable, but it’s well earned due to the amount of care Chen has made to present these Shaowu and Keigo as fully-realized characters. Chen, who has previously made documentaries, has a great sense of placement and location use, showing the differences between life on Kinmen and Taipei. But the most impressive aspect of “The Gangster’s Daughter” is how Chen and writer Hua Po-jung manage to confidently handle the gradation of tones in the movie. There’s tragedy that leads to comedy and then the inclusion of inevitable violence (never gratuitous) and although all of that is recycled throughout, it never feels forced or jarring.

Again, one would thing a film with such a set-up and title would be a revenge flick or straight-up gang-related material, but that’s not the goal here at all. “The Gangster’s Daughter” is about connection and longing for closeness in the most unexpected life situations. What’s most impressive is how Chen balances it all and manages in the end to leave us with a father-and-daughter relationship that’s quite memorable.

You can catch the “The Gangster’s Daughter” tonight at Chicago’s AMC River East 21, where a screening will be followed by a Q&A with director Mei-Juan Chen. Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season V runs from September 20th thru November 15th, tickets are $13.00 for regular screenings and $15.00 for films with directors and other special guests in attendance.

Tickets are on sale now at: www.asianpopupcinema.org/tickets. Seniors discounts are available for adults 65+ and students with valid IDs will enjoy free admissions.

 

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RATING: ***

 

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