The Gangster’s Daughter (Taiwan, 2016) [NYAFF 2017]
The gangster genre has been a staple of cinema for as long as I can remember, and filmmakers continue to find new ways of exploring society’s fascination over a life of glamorized crime. Chen Mei-Juin aims to do just that with The Gangster’s Daughter by shedding light on paternal dynamics within the gangster world. And although it’s certainly not uncharted territory, the final product is enjoyable and novel enough to serve as a worthy contribution to the genre.
The Gangster’s Daughter revolves around an aging gangster Keigo (Jack Kao), who is reunited with his estranged daughter Shaowu (Ally Chiu) after his ex-wife passes away. Due to concurrent circumstances at school, Shaowu has to move to Taipei to live with a father she never knew, leaving the comforts of the rural Kinmen Islands for the very first time. Keigo, on the other hand, is also tasked with being a father to a teenage girl, and what follows is an exploration of how both characters acclimatize to their newfound lives with each other.
And as the title suggests, a life of crime plays a major role in this acclimatization of two worlds. Over the course of the film, we’re introduced to Keigo’s love interest and criminal associates, where his world view of not getting involved in drugs and yearning for an eventual exit strategy are clearly established. At the same time, Shaowu’s curiosity for her father’s business practices grows, and friction between the two anchors the film’s primary story arc.
Essentially, you get all the usual tropes of a gangster film, including what one would expect from a story circling the relationship between a father and his teenage daughter. But The Gangster’s Daughter is far from a typical gangster film, which doesn’t always work in its favour. But let’s start with what does work. Jack Kao is excellent as usual, and his subdued performance of an aging crime boss is perfect. You get the sense that Keigo has always been kind at heart, and under different circumstances, would have reveled in a complete different lifestyle. His rookie father figure sentiment bounces off nicely with Ally Chiu’s portrayal of a stubborn teenager with a naive sense of curiosity. The relationship between Shaowu and her grandmother is also incredibly rich, and could have undoubtedly served as the basis for its own film.
What doesn’t work in The Gangster’s Daughter is its indecisiveness in committing to a direction. Given its premise and overall setup, the film could have easily steered towards over-the-top theatrics, tender melodrama or intense realism. Unfortunately, Chen never reaches toward one end of the spectrum, and instead chooses to float in this tepid middle ground that is a bit too tame for its own good. Scenes between Keigo and his underlings feel like they could be in an offbeat comedy, whereas scenes with Shaowu fluctuate between coming of age teen drama and lighthearted family affair. Some movies benefit from this type of genre bouncing, but for a story that has such a clear underlying story arc, it unfortunately doesn’t.
The film has great elements that work well on its own, but when taken together as a whole, isn’t unified enough to create the type of emotional impact one would expect. In fact, when the story elevates to its climatic finale during the last 20 minutes of the film, the result just doesn’t carry the dramatic weight it should. Overall, the film still works, but could have been much better given all its many merits in isolation. The Gangster’s Daughter still inflicts some originality into the gangster genre, and it’s certainly a welcoming change to see filmmakers explore this world from a different lens. The execution may not have been perfect, but the ride is still a worthwhile endeavor for fans of the genre.
The Gangster’s Daughter was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 1.