Do little fish always get eaten by bigger ones, or can they manage to swim free into kinder waters? As the title perhaps suggests, The Gangster’s Daughter (林北小舞, lín běi xiǎowǔ) finds its young heroine battling parental mystery, stepping into her father’s world of crime and dubious morality while he grows ever more disillusioned with his duplicitous lifestyle and the price he has clearly been paying to survive it. Yet they are both in many ways victims of the corruptions of the society in which they live in which others play the system in less overt ways but to the same ends in order to manipulate individual privilege.
Now a teenager, Shaowu’s (Ally Chiu) parents split up when she was little and she and her mother returned to live with her grandmother in Kinmen, an idyllic island village. Shaowu has no real memories of her father, Keigo (Jack Kao), a Taipei gangster and her grandmother is reluctant to enlighten her. The first time she sees him in many years is at her mother’s funeral at which he makes a notable appearance, an obvious “gangster” in dark sunglasses and sharp suit, backed by a dozen henchmen that, it later transpires, have been hired for the day by his overenthusiastic minions who thought he needed to look “good” while paying his respects to the mother of his child.
For herself, Shaowu is a rebellious teen who hangs out in a makeshift den where she keeps the various souvenirs she finds of a more violent time in scouring the corn fields for landmines. A pair of horrible boys appear to be bullying her as an orphan with an atypical family background, but Shaowu is unfazed until a nasty prank backfires and harms her only friend. In revenge, she dumps a pail of cow dung over the ringleader while he’s eating his lunch right in the middle of the classroom which would be funny if it weren’t that his dad’s a bigwig with political clout. Reluctant as she is, grandma calls Keigo to help her negotiate with the school, but it ends with a “recommendation” that it might be better Shaowu continue her education in the capital.
Which is all to say, that father and daughter have quite a lot in common. Shaowu becomes fascinated with the gangster life, acting out scenes from movies with an umbrella only to be stunned when she tries the same thing after finding one of Keigo’s guns and it turns out to be loaded. She finds herself sucked into his homosocial gangster world, dining with big boss Ting who remembers her from when she was a baby and has just returned from an extended stay in Thailand, and making friends with the daughter of another gangster, while Keigo ponders new routes forward as a responsible father trying to protect his daughter from the dangers of the circles in which he moves.
Twin crises arrive when his underling Dreamer gets into a fight a powerful corrupt cop, Chang, while Boss Ting edges towards moving the gang into drugs which is something Keigo, a noble gangster, cannot condone especially after he finds some stuffed into a cigarette packet one of Shaowu’s new friends asked her to look after. He tries do his best as a modern dad, patiently reminding himself that his daughter’s not a little girl and refraining from laying down the law, but is frustrated by her fascination for everything he regards as a fall from grace in his life as a petty gangster. He wants to get out and dreams of opening a restaurant with his girlfriend but discovers that the gangster world may not be done with him yet.
Father and daughter are, it seems, divided by an increasingly corrupted society where bent cops like Chang are no better than gangsters themselves while snotty kids know they can do as like they because they have powerful fathers and will never be expected to take responsibility for their actions. Little fish like Keigo don’t stand any kind of chance especially when they insist on swimming against the tide in adhering to the same kind of romanticised ideas of gangsterdom that Shaowu idolises from movies hopped up on jianghu idealism. Taipei or Kinmen, it doesn’t really matter. You’ll still find yourself squatting in the tall grass while others plot against you in the open. In her first narrative feature documentarian Chen Mei-Juin delights in capturing local character from the faded grandeur of traditional island life to the sleazy, neon-lit underbelly of the modern capital but never shies away from the ugliness which underpins it all and disrupts even the most essential of bonds.
The Gangster’s Daughter streams online for free in the US as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema’s Mini-Focus: Taiwan Cinema Online on June 10.
Original trailer (English subtitles)