Wednesday, June 28, 2017

NYAFF ’17: The Gangster’s Daughter

A teenage girl needs her father, especially one as headstrong as Shaowu. Granted, not having Keiko around spared her some awkward career days at school, but she really is a chip off the old block. They will finally get a chance to make up for lost time in Chen Mei-juin’s The Gangster’s Daughter (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Growing up on remote Kinmen Island, Shaowu is a bit of a wild child, but she has one true friend. Therefore, when a high school bully pulls a mean prank on her, Shaowu settles the score in a way the old man would appreciate (high noon, a pale of livestock dung). Unfortunately, the jerkweed is politically connected, so Shaowu is trundled off to live in Taipei with the father she only briefly reconnected with at her mother’s recent funeral.

At first, Shaowu has trouble making new friends, but the remainder of Keiko’s clan just adore her. He is sort of an emeritus gangster, who largely occupies his time managing the karaoke club hosted by his lover, Coco. She is still young enough to look good on his arm, but mature enough to take a mothering interest in Shaowu.

Of course, a gangster will be a strict parent, because of the things they’ve seen. Keiko is particularly old school when it comes to drugs. He won’t allow his associates to participate in the dirty business whatsoever and he certainly won’t stand for them in his house. Unfortunately, his recently returned senior has plans for a major new narcotics venture.

Gangster’s Daughter is a wonderfully wise and forgiving family drama that just so happens to have a good deal of gangster action and skullduggery. Frankly, it would pair up perfectly with the masterful Mr. Six, which is high praise indeed, but warranted. It is a poignant film in many ways, both for the genuinely engaging father-daughter relationship and the passing of an era and a value system.

Jack Kao has appeared in several Hou Hsiao-hsien masterworks, but Keiko might just be the role that defines him. There is nothing cutesy or predictable about his performance. He is hardnosed all the way, but also warm and humanistic. Likewise, Ally Chiu is fiery and vulnerable as Shaowu, whose normal teenaged angsts are compounded by circumstance. Stephenie Lim Mei-ching is also altogether engaging and grounded as Coco, the entirely cliché-free gangster’s girlfriend.

Gangster’s Daughter is too honest for easy quirkiness or cheap sentiment. Yet, it still manages to sneak up on viewers. First it charms and then it lowers the boom. It is probably one of the most accessible films at the festival, yet the diehards should still dig its gangster business. Affectionately recommended, The Gangster’s Daughter screens this Saturday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of the eagerly anticipated 2017 NYAFF.